Recently I discovered the French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau. Only twenty-nine, his articulation and expression are stunning for his age.
I have always preferred the harpsichord to the piano; there is something regal and sublime in plucked notes – a sort of shimmering, scintillating shower, like a melodic shattering crystal. Typically on recordings – particularly of the chamber varietal – the delicate, cascading framework can seem merely a frilly window dressing for the dominant thrust and weave of viols. The harpsichord (or clavecin en française) becomes mere tinkling in the composition. Background.
In Rondeau’s interpretations, the harpsichord emerges as an expressive rival to the piano – more brittle and vulnerable and yet, paradoxically, powerful. The box containing those rows of strings and inverted black and white keys and slender covers – often painted extravagantly with dramatic scenes of passion or tragedy – becomes a kind of enunciator of the past, not merely a flat, filigreed fence. With no dampening pedal or pianissimo available to the player, it is up to him alone to communicate the feeling of the piece. Rondeau attains this with stunning mix of subtlety and fortitude.
Rondeau’s intuition for the Baroque is haunting. As he plays, he seems to be searching for the narrative behind the quilled notes. It is this seeking and coupling of the composer’s humanity with his technical excellence that gives Rondeau’s performances an emotive verity, uncannily communicating the long-dead sentiments of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (1705-1755), as well as the inimitable Johan Sebastian Bach. In life, Rameau and Royer were rivals, battling for prominence in the French Opéra. Yet in his album Vertigo – Rondeau’s pairing of a selection of the two composer’s works – the pieces flow from one to the next with the crystalline brilliance of an 18th-century chandelier. But thanks to a sensitive performer, they also tell the tales of the people once reflected in those manifold bevels.