With so many recent appearances with his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, it is easy to forget that Christophe Rousset started off as a pioneer of French harpsichord playing.
This recital at the Wigmore Hall took him back to his roots, with a programme of excerpts from various livres of French harpsichord music. The familiar figure of Jean-Philippe Rameau appeared, but most of the evening was made up of music by comparative unknowns: Jacque Duphly, Claude Balbastre and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. Inevitably, perhaps, the quality of the music was uneven. The three pieces from Duphly’s third book of harpsichord works, for example, were entertaining enough, but hardly profound, despite the dramatic sound painting and technical complexity of Médée. Similarly, the three movements from Balbastre’s first book of pieces for harpsichord were a little tame. Each of these were portraits of the composer’s patrons and supporters, with personal references largely lost on modern listeners.
Normally relaxed and good humoured, Rousset appeared rather tense and serious during the first half of his recital (which was played through without a break). But his mood brightened during the second part, and he delivered a riveting performance of movements from Royer’s first book of pieces for harpsichord. These show the progression of French keyboard music from the time of Couperin, and they easily stand up to the high watermark of his contemporary Rameau. The subtly shifting textures and chromatic harmonies of L’Incertaine and Les tendre sentiments are reminiscent of Rameau in particular, while the finale of Le Vertigo contains what must surely be a deliberate indirect quotation from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
As one would expect, the four pieces from Rameau’s 1724 Pièces de Clavecin were impeccably played. In particular, Rousset gave a dizzying account of Les tourbillons (‘The whirlwinds’), with its rapidly swirling scales and arpeggios. The delicacy and poise of L’Entretien des Muses (‘The conversation of the Muses’) was an object lesson in minor-key finesse.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.