Following their acclaimed performance of Les Indes Galantes at the Barbican Hall earlier in March, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques returned to London with their musical forces stripped down to the bare bones for an airing of one of Rameau’s most enticing chamber works – the Pièces de clavecin en concert.
The five sets of Pièces de clavecin are essentially short harpsichord suites with added parts for violin and viola de gamba to be played ‘in concert’. Each suite is made up of three or four character movements with intriguing titles referring to people, situations and moods which had special significance for Rameau in his personal and musical life. Musically, they range from the strident arpeggios of La Coulicam in the first concert (named after Kouli Khan, the Shah of Persia, who visited Paris during Rameau’s lifetime), to the stately La Cupis in the final piece – a probable homage to the ballerina Marie Anne Cupis de Camargo.
Although Rameau boldly claimed that the whole set could adequately be performed by the harpsichord alone, in reality the string parts are fully integrated within the musical fabric, with plenty of shared melodies, conversational interactions and ornamental and harmonic contrasts. Indeed, the violin often dominates certain movements, with the harpsichord and viola da gamba sometimes left with supporting roles.
All of this calls for intelligent musicianship and a strong sense of partnership between the trio of players. This was certainly evident at the Wigmore Hall. Violinist Gilone Gaubert-Jacques romped and soared through the more rustic and virtuosic movements, while exhibiting a deep sensitivity towards the plaintive and reflective passages in La Timide and La Livri, for example. On the viola da gamba, Lucile Boulanger rose to the challenge of holding the bass line and then, quite unexpectedly, entwining with the violin in the upper registers. Holding this together was Christophe Rousset at the harpsichord. He supervised the whole ensemble with a knowing smile and nod, while occasionally breaking out with solo flourishes of astonishing virtuosity.
In his 250th anniversary year, it wouldn’t do to completely ignore Rameau’s vocal works. So we got a small glimpse of the would-be opera composer from his early cantata Orphée (1721). Although this short work for solo soprano and trio ensemble cannot compare with the fully-fledged operas of 1733 onwards, it does provide a hint of what was to come in its intense recitative passages and florid arioso sections. More noticeable, though, was the quality of the soprano Valerie Gabail, whose rich tone injected real intensity into the slightly bookish text.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.