“An ode to silence” is how harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has described Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a towering landmark of the solo keyboard repertoire. He elucidates by saying, “I feel they were written for silence, in the sense that they take the place of silence.” Famously, of course, Bach is reputed to have written the variations to be played at night, by the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, as comfort for the insomniac Russian ambassador to Dresden.
Rondeau senses a “delicacy and fragility” in his chosen instrument, but also an “animalistic” quality: “I imagine an animal with its ears pricked up … You need to learn to handle a harpsichord like a piece of fabric, as something that is malleable and to which you can give shape.” When it comes to the score itself, he feels that: “All Bach is there in the Goldberg Variations … all music is there. It would take a lifetime to talk about their musicological and technical aspects, and I will no doubt spend my life working on them.”
When preparing his interpretation, Rondeau consulted an original printed edition of the score that is held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Dating from the 1740s and rediscovered in 1974, it contains markings and corrections made by Bach himself. As Rondeau says, “Through delving into this precious musicological source, I was able to make what I felt to be the most authentic choices.”
He performs the set of variations in its complete form, with the indicated repeats and with judicious insertion of moments of silence. As a result, the recording extends over two CDs, with the break coming after the measured, canonic Variation 15, with its enigmatic final bars, and the second CD beginning with the assertive ouverture à la française that is Variation 16.
Melancholy Grace is a poetic collection of keyboard music from the 16th and 17th centuries by composers from Italy, the Netherlands, England and Germany. The French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has conceived the album as a sombre, but eloquent dialogue between two contrasting voices: melancholy conveyed through chromaticism and melancholy conveyed through the musical expression of tears and weeping. Among the eight ‘chromatic’ composers are Frescobaldi, Luigi Rossi, Luzzaschi and Sweelinck, while the ‘weeping’ composers are Dowland, Bull, Gibbons, Valente and Scheidemann (who has an anonymous piece attributed to him).
Dowland’s Lachrimae Verae (True Tears) closes the programme, but in some senses forms the conceptual starting point for the Melancholy Grace. As Jean Rondeau explains in his note for the album: “In 1596 John Dowland sowed a melodic seed … cultivating fame for a song that would have considerable impact in England throughout the period of burgeoning musical activity that coincided with the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the post-Elizabethan era. This tune also made a strong impression across Europe, particularly in Flanders and Germany on composers such as Sweelinck and Scheidemann, and it went on to influence modern creators like Britten, who, more than three centuries later, echoed it in his Reflections on a Song of John Dowland. This song is an emblem, a signature. Its title is ‘Flow, my tears’. It is Dowland’s Lachrimae. A musical shape repeated, rewritten, improvised, a melody embedded in the creative collective. It will not fade – it lingers and resonates …” In addition to Dowland’s own keyboard piece (one of a set of Seaven Teares that are musically linked to the song ‘Flow, my tears’) the album contains two stately dances inspired by his musical weeping: the anonymous pavane attributed to Scheidemann and another pavane by Gibbons.
Each distinct voice in the dialogue of Melancholy Grace finds expression through a different instrument: a 16th century Italian virginal (a compact harpsichord) for the ‘tears’ and a modern replica of an 18th century harpsichord for the ‘chromatic’ pieces.
“There are two sound-worlds,” continues Jean Rondeau, “…each belonging to a different instrument: a large Italian-style harpsichord made by Philippe Humeau in 2007 after an anonymous early-18th-century model, and a Florentine arpicordo, or polygonal virginal, produced around 1575 by an unknown maker, possibly Francesco Poggi. Listeners will immediately notice the marked difference between the timbres of these two instruments. While the strings are plucked in both, their design is clearly distinct, each with its specific action and particular shape. As a result the sound they produce defines two very distinct acoustical territories. Each in its own way has tremendous charm and striking emotional power, and they resonate across time … Alternating between them is like having lines spoken by two characters – a simple change of narrator and point of view, rather than moving from one chapter or one volume to another. In doing so, I thought it apt to accentuate this change with the return of a ritornello – as was the custom between each act of an opera at that time: the Ballo alla Polacha by Giovanni Picchi, heard on tracks 6, 10 and 15 [of the 18 on the album].”
Rondeau also points out that he has not adopted equal temperament for the recording: in other words the practice of tuning each octave of the instrument as 12 equal semitones, as became standard in the 18th and 19th centuries: “My use of different temperaments – all unequal, depending on the piece, its key and therefore its meaning – has a considerable effect on my interpretation and is strongly connected to the various composers’ way of writing. This contributes greatly to the intensity of the emotions I feel while playing these pieces … My choices are made from the perspective of an assiduous player rather than that of a purist, never governed by anything other than the music itself. It would make no sense to use an equal or unequal temperament in a work it did not suit: the expressive power of the music would be completely distorted. That would result in transcription or translation, even transmutation.”
The BBC Proms has revealed its 2018 programme, with several French classical stars making their Proms debut.
On 5 September, Joyce DiDonato reprises the role of Dido in highlights from Berlioz's Les Troyens, this time with John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The American mezzo's recent recording with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and maestro John Nelson won the BBC Music Magazine Award for Best Opera Album earlier this month.
French coloratura soprano Sabine Devieilhe will take to the Royal Albert Hall stage for the first time on 26 July in Debussy's sensual cantata La Damoiselle élue, marking the centenary of the French composer's death. She sings Debussy on her latest album of French arias and songs, Mirages.
In another important French debut, Romantic pianist extraordinaire Bertrand Chamayou plays Mendelssohn's First Concerto on 20 July, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
At Cadogan Hall, on 23 July, Jean Rondeau: another Frenchman in another Proms debut, this time an all-French harpsichord recital including music by Royer (from his album Vertigo), François Couperin and a world-premiere by Eve Risser.
Violinist Renaud Capuçon was in London recently for the launch of his Bartók concertos album with the London Symphony Orchestra. He returns 19 August with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande as soloist in an orchestration of the Ravel Violin Sonata in G Major.
Soprano Diana Damrau sings her heartland repertory, songs by Richard Strauss, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko.
A conductor very much familiar to London audiences, Sir Antonio Pappano, brings his Italian Orchestra dell'Accadamia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia to town for Bernstein's Symphony No.1 marking the centenary of the American composer's birth in August. Pappano has recorded the complete Bernstein Symphonies and The Age of Anxiety with the same orchestra and pianist Beatrice Rana for release later this year.
Discover the complete 2018 BBC Proms line-up here.
The shortlists for the 13th annual BBC Music Magazine Awards, the only classical music awards in which the main categories are voted for by the public, have been announced. A jury of expert critics selected this year’s 21 nominees across seven categories from over 200 longlisted recordings reviewed in 2017 by BBC Music Magazine, the world’s best-selling classical music monthly. The public vote is now open at the magazine’s website.
The many distinguished and varied nominees include, in the Opera category, the epic recording of Les Troyens, hailed the new reference recording and topping many Best of 2017 lists including The New York Times, The Guardian and the Chicago Tribune, thanks to its impressive orchestral and choral forces and an all-star cast headed by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michael Spyres and Marianne Crebassa.
'[Conductor John] Nelson drives the drama with unforced tempos but ample theatrical vitality. Spyres...sings with lyrical grace and spirit...Joyce DiDonato sings Dido with characteristic security and expressiveness,' opined BBC Music Magazine in its five-star review.
Flying the French flag in the Chamber category is the sensational team featuring Renaud Capuçon (violin), Edgar Moreau (cello), Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Bertrand Chamayou (piano) in these mercurial Debussy sonatas - charming one moment, sensual the next. The French critics called the six players a 'supergroup', while BBC Music Magazine noted that 'a sense of joy in collegial music-making pervades these performances. Unlike many, violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Bertrand Chamayou and their colleagues do not avoid the vein of sensual passion that glows beneath Debussy's perfectionism...Perhaps the finest all is the beautiful balance of elegiac tone that thins out of the Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp.'
The Concerto category also features French harpsichord firebrand Jean Rondeau on the album Dynastie, with intensely intimate, energised performances of concertos by Bach and sons. 'His spirited and eloquently ornamented playing serves the music of JS Bach and three of his sons uncommonly well,' declared BBC Music Magazine.
There are seven categories open to the public vote: Orchestral, Concerto, Opera, Choral, Vocal, Chamber and Instrumental. Audio excerpts are available on the voting site, and all UK voters will be entered into a draw to win copies of the nominations.
The winners of the Awards will be announced at a ceremony on 5 April at Kings Place, London. In addition to the public awards, there are four jury awards: Premiere Recording, Newcomer of the Year, DVD of the Year and Recording of the Year.
See all the nominees and have your say now!
Gramophone has selected French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau's new album Dynastie as Editor's Choice in its Best New Classical Albums of the month. The critic declares the recital of harpsichord concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and sons "charming and human...a recording to savour". Rondeau's playing imparts "a sense of absolute connection and improvisatory ease with his harpsichord akin to that of a jazz pianist".
Gramophone points out that "a highlight is Rondeau’s own orchestration of the ‘Lamento’ from WF Bach’s Sonata in G major. Sublimely written and glowingly performed.
"JS Bach’s BWV1056 in F minor has thoughtfulness, fun and flourish, followed by a reading of CPE Bach’s Wq23 Concerto in D minor which captures this stylistic wild child’s maverick choppiness with clipped, buoyant elegance."
The young French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau describes the Bach family as “one of the great dynasties of western music”. Having devoted his first Erato recording, Imagine, to music by the towering Johann Sebastian Bach, followed by a recital of French Baroque music entitled Vertigo, he returns to the world of Bach for his third release, Dynastie. Johann Sebastian is now joined by the most famous of his ten sons, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), Carl Philipp Emmanuel (1714-88) and Johann Christian (1735-82). After two solo recitals, Rondeau also has company in his consort which accompanies him in four concertos and Rondeau’s own arrangement of a sonata by Wilhelm Friedemann.
Imagine, which comprised transcriptions of works by Bach, won Rondeau two top awards in France: for Instrumental ‘Revelation’ of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique and for Solo Classical Instrumentalist of the Year at the Grands Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros 2015. BBC Music Magazine, meanwhile, judged that “Not only is the trajectory utterly sure-footed; he can also generate palpable excitement without resorting to empty bravado ... Rondeau is a natural communicator, unimpeded by the imperative to score academic points ... Make no mistake – this is an auspicious debut.”
The 25-year-old Rondeau has described JS Bach, who has been part of his life since his childhood, as “daunting like a mighty mountain”, but at the same time feels that “his music is so full of humility, so generous, that we have the right and the duty to play it, to share it, and to take the hand that he extends to us.”
Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emmanuel were brothers and Johann Christian was their half-brother. All three of them had a distinctive musical personality: Wilhelm Friedemann’s style vacillated between conservatism (an adherence to the Baroque idiom) and a more progressive approach, whether galant or highly expressive in the North German style; Carl Philipp Emmanuel, the best-known Bach in his time, spent many years at the court of Frederick the Great or Prussia, notably producing a multitude of keyboard works that are sometimes startlingly innovative in form and content, while Johann Christian, who settled in London in 1762, adopted elements of Italian style and exercised an influence on the young Mozart when he spent time in London in 1764-65.
The Bach dynasty provides a wealth of source material for Jean Rondeau: "Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian did their utmost to be worthy of the legacy passed down to them by their father," he explains. "The essential qualities of this legacy are modernity and audacity, which lie at the very heart of musical creativity.
"Musical ideas are not my ideas, they are already in the score. All you have to do is dig deep for them and you will find them. What’s important for me is to be as true as possible in my playing.”
Dynastie will be released on CD, digital platforms and vinyl on 24 February.
"Jean Rondeau polishes the gilded frames of these portraits and character pieces, freeing their intense interior life," declared Classica magazine in the latest issue, in which Jean Rondeau's new album Vertigo has been selected for the 'Choc' Editor's Choice.
"Much more than the seductive photos and his 'cool look', it's the conception of the programme and its interpretation that deserve attention." The album is devoted to two masters of the French Baroque: Jean-Philippe Rameau and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, who both wrote extensively for the opera and brought a particularly theatrical sensibility to their music for solo harpsichord.
"In such capable hands, the harpsichord is no longer trapped in a boudoir for pretentious young ladies and English countesses, but becomes a big screen on which emotions are played out...To the point of vertigo."
Jean Rondeau's Vertigo is out now.
The 24-year-old French virtuoso invites listeners to experience the dizzying heights of the harpsichord; the gut-wrenching harmonies of 'Vertigo', and other dramatic works by French Baroque composers Rameau and Royer.
Drama and virtuosity aside, what Rameau and Royer have in common, the young harpsichordist insists, is a touch of "madness" and the fact that they showed "how music transcends social mores, politics and fashion".
Rondeau's new album, Vertigo, was recorded in somewhat mysterious surroundings: by night, in a small French chateau on a historic 18th-century instrument. Tonight's Paris concert takes place in the Salle Corteau, the ideal intimate setting to hear the harpsichord take flight.
Jean Rondeau's album of music by Rameau and Royer, Vertigo, is out now.
Jean Rondeau insists that the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau is "totally wild and crazy, in terms of the drama, the surprising forms..." The French Baroque master's harmonies "can turn the listener on their head." And the young French harpsichordist has just the right temperament for this music.
But it is another, lesser-known composer, Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, who gives Rondeau's new album its title, named for his most intensely energetic, virtuosic work for solo harpsichord, Vertigo.
France’s leading young harpsichordist performs works by two masters of the French Baroque. No surprises there, perhaps … but the harpsichordist in question is Jean Rondeau and the album conceives the harpsichord in vividly theatrical terms.
If Rameau (1683–1764) is the better-known composer today, especially admired for such operatic masterpieces as Hippolyte et Aricie and Platée, the younger Royer (1705–1755) was also a major figure in his time, rising to become master of music at the court of Louis XV. Both Rameau and Royer excelled in keyboard music and in works for the stage. As Jean Rondeau says: “These two illustrious composers battled for the top spot at the Opéra.” He describes them as “two magicians, two master architects, amongst the most wildly imaginative and brilliant of their era … Two composers who also tried to capture echoes of grand theatre with the palette offered by their keyboard.”
The 24-year-old harpsichordist is an eloquent advocate – in both words and music – of the extraordinary descriptive, narrative and expressive scope of these two composers’ keyboard writing. In the 16 tracks on Vertigo he creates a dramatic structure, paying homage to the form of the opéra-ballet.
And what of Vertigo itself, which features in the second entrée? “According to the encyclopedia it is a fantaisie – but it is a fantaisie to the power of ten!" enthuses Rondeau. "It concentrates a CinemaScope movie into five short minutes; Royer gives us an opera in three hundred seconds. It is all there – with nothing borrowed from his stage music; there is even a dizzying cascade at the cadence, my personal homage to Alfred Hitchcock, even though he has nothing to do with the matter in hand … Just for the fun of it!”
Vertigo was recorded at the 18th-century Château d’Assas near Montpellier in southern France, a venue closely associated with the harpsichordist Scott Ross (1951-1989), whose epoch-making box of the complete Scarlatti sonatas was re-released on Erato in 2014.
Jean Rondeau's new album Vertigo is out now.
It's a harpsichord and a place that has inspired many musicians, and has worked its magic on Rondeau's new album Vertigo, too.
Vertigo: Rameau and Royer will be released in February 2016.
Kirche St. Martin
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