Top Ear

☆〜(ゝ。∂)Jean Rondeau: Bach Imagine ☆〜(ゝ。∂)

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Bach Imagine

Leonard Ip writes

It’s hard to imagine a more stunning debut album. Who is Jean Rondeau, this harpsichord firebrand (if there is such a thing) bursting onto the scene from nowhere? Born 1991 in France, he started playing the harpsichord with no less than Blandine Verlet, who was his teacher for ten years. Including Verlet, Rondeau’s teachers practically comprises a list of most distinguished harpsichordists of our age: Olivier Baumont, Blandine Rannou and Kenneth Weiss in the Paris Conservatory, Christophe Rousset in masterclasses, and Carole Cerasi in the Guildhall School, where Rondeau is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree. This recording, made in June 2014, shows him being well on a par with any of his teachers.

For a harpsichord programme, the content of the disc is rather unusual. The programme Rondeau designed (and explained in detailed in the booklet) consists of two kinds of pieces: pieces Bach wrote for the harpsichord, and those for other instruments, arranged for the harpsichord by other composers. Strictly speaking, only the Italian Concerto (BWV 971) belongs to the former category, since the C minor Suite (BWV 997) was written originally for the lute-harpsichord (and therefore needs no arrangement). The arrangements Rondeau choose were variegated in kind and origin: the Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin BWV 1003 and the Adagio from BWV 1005 (arranged by W. F. Bach), the Partita for Unaccompanied Flute BWV 1013 (arranged – with “the other voices” filled in – by Stephane Delplace), and, surprise, the D minor Chaconne (BWV 1004) arranged by Brahms for piano left hand.

I’ll start from the Italian Concerto, the most recorded item on the programme. With regard to harpsichord recordings alone, there are a few kinds of more characteristic interpretations: those going for speed and excitement (Ross/Erato, Pinnock/DG), a steady pace and a refined demeanour (Gilbert/HM, Leonhardt/HM), or certain sense of beauty by a freer expression (Suzuki/BIS, Rousset/Decca). Taken as a whole Rondeau tends towards the last kind, and is in fact not unlike Rousset in his detailed attention to touch and timbre and an exquisite sense of delineation and voice-balancing. Rondeau also prefers to arpeggiate certain intervals or chords for beauty’s sake, and does so with a healthy dose of rubato. Although he does not add in ornaments as frequently as Suzuki, the two are similar in improvisation-like inflections that characterizes their elegant phrasing, resulting in a relatively large range of fluctuation that I admit finding completely charming (though some may consider it a drawback). While not lacking in clarity and vigour, the impression of Rondeau’s rendition remains a mellow one – if he does not offer the concertante pomp and circumstances, Rondeau more than makes it up by playing the piece extremely beautifully.

I’ve tried to show how Rondeau is in possession not only of a fine technique but unique insights into musical interpretation as well. These qualities are nowhere more clearly displayed than in the twelve-minute D minor Chaconne. I cannot help but commend Rondeau for his bold creativity and deep understanding of Bach in choosing the Chaconne, for, to paraphrase Rondeau’s notes, this means starting from the violin in Bach’s time, going through the piano in Brahms’ time, and coming back full circle to the harpsichord of Bach’s time, a gesture that signifies the historicality and trans-historicality of Bach’s music. Most importantly, Rondeau’s performance is one that emanates as much beauty as moving emotions. Taking advantage of the harpsichord’s crisp tone, Rondeau rigorously plays out the dance-like rhythmic drive of the Chaconne, and in keeping with the basic drive, imbues the music with a poignant, delicate aura by freely employing ornaments and rubato. With this kind of treatment Rondeau is able to make the most out of the running scales and arpeggio passages, allowing them to fuse organically into the narrative. The harpsichord itself never had the desolate strength of the violin, nor the stentorian depth of the piano, but Rondeau convinces me of its potentiality: the limpidity of the harpsichord seems to give the image of the composer facing directly his own emotions, upright and sincere in his contemplation, that is hardly present in any other versions. The rest of the programme are outstanding in their own rights, and I shall not go over them in unnecessary details.

It’s true Rondeau’s talent alone is stunning, yet the disc is stunning simultaneously in virtue of the excellence of the sonics and the instrument. The harpsichord is made modelling on German types (Jonte Knif & Arno Pelto, 2oo6 tuning by Jean-François Brun), and has an overall crystalline and pearly tone that is remarkably strong and decisive in the lower register. It also has a quite reverberant soundboard, but the overtones are far from causing a problem. The recording is made in the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel in paris, which naturally enhanced the resonance. These factors may have motivated Rondeau in his use of rubato, although this remains very much speculation. All in all, the aural impression is full-bodied and warm, with a moist texture that makes it perhaps the most pleasing-on-the-ear harpsichord recording I have ever had the good fortune to hear. If this disc satisfies – it clearly did to me – be sure to look out for Rondeau’s future projects.

Bach Imagine

Harpsichord: Jean Rondeau
Erato 2564622009 – CD Stereo DDD 79:56

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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