Rameau – Pièces de clavecin (selection)
Dukas – Variations on a theme by Rameau
Couperin – ‘Sixième ordre’ from Pièces de clavecin, Book II
Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin
We live in curious times, musically speaking. French Baroque keyboard music is undergoing a mini-revival of interest on the piano, such repertoire, Marcelle Meyer notwithstanding, never quite having been considered mainstream or even acceptable before. Meanwhile, the days when Bach and Handel were part of the symphonic and mainstream choral repertoire – again, the French Baroque never really was – seem more distant than ever. Almost sixty years ago, Theodor Adorno could see the way the wind was blowing, lamenting in his brilliant essay, Bach defended against his devotees, that the sole concern of Bach’s ‘devotees’ – soon to become the fully-fledged authenticke Taliban – was to ensure that ‘no inauthentic dynamics, no modifications of tempo, no excessively large choirs and orchestra’ should be employed. Palpable was the potential fury, ‘lest any more humane impulse’ should become audible. Things could only get worse – with the exception, that is of the piano. Pianists never agreed to relinquish Bach, of course, yet, even a few years ago, one would have been hard put to foresee that wonderful artists as eminent as Alexandre Tharaud and Angela Hewitt would be championing Rameau and Couperin. The clattering harpsichord retains the lion’s share of performances; yet, not only to reclaim lost territory, but to mount the occasional, though repeated incursion such as this, represents a remarkable turn of events.
One obvious way to programme such music is with later French piano music, especially that avowedly inspired by the clavecinists. Hewitt took this path, with results amply justifying the means. My reservations, such as they were, tended to lie with the later repertoire, in which I was not so convinced as I have been upon hearing, say, Tharaud in similar circumstances. Still, an enthusiastic audience – surely including a good number of Hewitt followers – seemed to respond most warmly of all to her Ravel, so mine was perhaps a minority opinion.
Opening the menu was a Rameau selection. From the Suite in D major we heard Le lardon and La joyeuse. Hewitt’s ever-sensitive touch seemed perfectly attuned to the delicacy required from the French baroque, never neglecting the pianistic opportunities afforded by the modern instrument. She proved flexible of rhythm and projected an undeniably ‘French’ quality to her performances. Likewise in the feminine charm of the Fanfarinette from the Suite in A minor and the succeeding selection of four pieces from the Suite in G minor. A nice contrast was drawn between the opening, gentle melancholy of Les triolets and the forthrightness of the celebrated piece, Les sauvages, subsequently incorporated in the opera-ballet, Les indes galantes. Les sauvages showcased Hewitt’s pianistic staccato and marcato, without unwarranted excursions into Gouldian territory (not that I am aware of her fellow Canadian ever performing French Baroque music). Repose and restlessness were held in perfect balance in the startling L’enharmonique, which does what it says on the tin. Telling rubato aided and abetted the composer’s chromaticism. The final piece, L’egyptienne employed the full panoply of the piano’s resources. In its almost Vivaldian – yet more interesting – drama, sequences and all, we heard an apt conclusion to this Rameau selection.
Paul Dukas’s 1902 Variations, interlude, and finale on a theme by Rameau followed, the theme being Le lardon, heard at the opening of the recital. The variations immediately plunge us into late-Romantic territory, the first almost Reger-like in harmony and texture. Yet there remained hints of the Baroque, pointed to in Hewitt’s underlining of dotted rhythms. I am not entirely sure that Dukas’s work adds up to more than the some of its parts, but it is an interesting journey, worth making occasionally. (In her programme notes, Hewitt related that she first learned the piece thirty years ago, when ‘some judges in international competitions couldn’t understand why I bothered!’) The fifth variation sounded somewhere between Franck and Busoni, whose parallel spirit surfaced from time to time throughout the work. Lisztian harmonies were projected to full effect in the sixth, followed by an admirably skittish account of the seventh, preparing the way for a big Romantic tone in the subsequent variation. In the final, eleventh variation, we heard a great build up of such tone, followed by an ominous subsiding into the interlude, and then the compendious finale. If a little distended, it was fun to hear hints – and more than hints – of what had gone before, with something of Franck (Debussy’s ‘modulating machine) and even the odd Debussyan shift.
The Couperin ordre received an alert, enlightening performance, its opening piece, Les Moissonneurs, presenting an immediate sense of gentle rhythm, nevertheless strongly projected: delicate, yet never effete. Les Langueurs-Tendres was languorous, as the title would suggest, without lacking in forward purpose. There followed Le Gazoüillement and Le Bersan, the former marvelously elegant, its chirping evoking mental images of a Watteau scene. Les Baricades Mistérieuses – what a wonderful title! – benefited from a nice swing, judicious rubato, and clear textures in a potentially muddy register. Les Bergeries sounded aptly pastoral, Hewitt evincing typical care for detail, yet pointing out the wood as well as the trees. I found La Commére somewhat strident, though perhaps it should be, in its presentation of a gossip. And the closing piece, Le Moucheron, once again benefited from an excellent sense of rhythm.
Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin was the masterpiece on the programme. Much of Hewitt’s performance was very good, but I sometimes found her a little lacking in style, especially when compared with her Baroque performances. The Prélude was forthright, resolutely unsentimental, but could perhaps have sounded a little more delicate. I suspect that the pianist’s chosen Fazioli instrument lessened the chance of pastel shades. Ravel’s part-writing was splendidly handled in the Fugue, followed by an excellent account of the Forlane. Here, Hewitt’s rhythmic sense was spot-on from the outset; we heard a true dance, elegant too, with links to Couperin, especially in the composer’s ornamentation, readily to be heard. It is difficult, though far from impossible, not to sound a little heavy-handed in the Rigaudon. Hewitt did not entirely succeed, though there was a lively and once again forthright character to her performance. The Menuet was startling slow, Romantic in both tempo and flexibility. Rhythms were nicely twisted and nostalgia pervaded without overwhelming. Old France was beautifully and movingly evoked; this is, after all, Ravel’s memorial to friends who had fallen on the battlefield. I was especially taken by the powerful climax in the minor-mode section. More than a hint of Liszt here prepared us for the pyrotechnics of the concluding Toccata. Hewitt sounded every inch the virtuoso here. She was generally elegant, though at times she could err a little towards the heavy-handed. The ‘French’ sound and style pervading her Rameau and Couperin were intermittently present in her Ravel, then; much the same could be said of the encore, Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Ultimately, however, this was a splendid opportunity to hear French Baroque music, not only on the piano, but in such enlightening company.