French, With A Difference
In the arts, an age is usually known by a great artist—Rembrandt, for example. Sometimes there are artists used as bookends to mark an age. In classical music, the English have Henry Purcell, and in the 1950s, Benjamin Britten was hailed as the greatest English composer since Purcell. That’s quite a compliment, encompassing three centuries.
The French have a similar arrangement with Jean-Phillipe Rameau stretching to Claude Debussy, into the 20th century. Both men were keyboardists and fond for writing short character pieces. Rameau had three careers; as a harmony theorist, he published his “Treatise on Harmony” in 1722. Then came his famed “Pieces de Clavecin,” followed by two more collections. Finally, at a time when most composers rested on their laurels, Rameau turned to opera, and that is what he is best remembered for today.
Claude Debussy was his own man. At 18 he won the Prix de Rome, and was soon bored at the Villa Medici. German music like Beethoven didn't move him either. He studied a concerto of Chopin at the conservatoire and was more drawn to ancient music rather than the romantic blockbusters of the time. His two books of preludes are given titles that inspire the pianist and listener alike.
A new album by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson combines Debussy and Rameau in a pleasing way. Not only do you get a good representation of these composers, but the music's flow on the album is charming.
Debussy discovered Rameau's musical strengths when reviewing a performance of Rameau's opera “Castor et Pollux,” so to announce Debussy to us, the first work on the album is the prelude to his opera “La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel).” Next comes a selection of pieces by Rameau, starting with “A Conversation of the Birds.” Ólafsson jumps back and forth between the two composers, sometimes fooling one into thinking that what is Debussy is actually Rameau. Ólafsson makes his own contribution by transcribing the “Entrance of the Muses” from Rameau's opera, “Les Boreades.” This haunting rendition comes across as a dreamscape and defines Ólafsson 's approach to this French composer of the baroque. The playing is limpid and controlled with a light touch, and amazing speed in the scales in Rameau's pieces. This collection is presented in a poetic way, perfect for a rainy morning while in quarantine. Appropriately, the album ends with Debussy's “Hommage a Rameau.”
One caveat, when music for a French double harpsichord is played on the piano, it is a transcription. The wild and bravura music of Rameau comes across with strength and volume when played on a harpsichord, but can sound light and thin on a grand piano, more like a watercolor than the impasto one can get with oils. So if you enjoy this Rameau, you owe it to yourself to seek out and hear his music on the instrument he composed it for. "Debussy - Rameau" is highly recommended.