Amidst the considerable number of compositions by Rameau for the theatre, and which are increasingly being discovered by opera companies and audiences, it is perhaps easy to forget that the composer only came to the stage fairly late in his career and was acclaimed initially as a harpsichordist and organist. His published output of music for the harpsichord is not extensive, but it was and is influential as crystallising the distinctively French school of composition for that instrument, alongside such other master clavecinistes as the Couperins, Dandrieu, and so on, both for the music itself and for the instructions about the art of performance set down in the prefaces.
Steven Devine defers to the theory, as intimated in the extracts he quotes in his liner notes, but his performances rightly come alive with charming vitality as he realises both the letter and spirit of the music with engaging precision. He executes exactly the many and varied ornaments as notated, but they never hinder the rhythmic progress of the melodies as can happen when the beat becomes occluded. Instead, Devine’s embellishments become an integral part of the music’s texture.
Crucially, the meters of the various dance movements therefore remain intact, not least in the moderately paced ‘Allemandes’ where it can be difficult to detect any distinctive pulse. The unmeasured (written without bar-lines and notated rhythm) ‘Prélude’ of the Suite in A-minor, from the 1706 publication, is executed in fairly strict tempo, rather than languishing over the harmonies. Admittedly, the ‘Rigaudons’ of the E-minor Suite from the Pièces de Clavessin (sic, 1724) are quite polite and could attain more rude, earthy vigour (as rural, not courtly, dances); and the adoption of the characteristically French notes inégales approach to rhythm (making uneven the lengths of notes that, on the page, are written with equal durations) is sometimes half-hearted, as in the ‘Allemande’ and ‘Menuet’ of the 1706 A-minor/major Suite. But again tempos remain intact, and so that hardly matters.
That also remains true of those movements of the Suites which are character pieces, for example in the elaborate chirruping of birds in ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’ of the E-minor Suite from the 1724 book, and in the deft handling of the tricky rhythms of semiquaver triplets pitted against quaver duplets in the first double of ‘Les Niais de Sologne’ from the D-minor Suite of the same collection. Rameau’s most famous harpsichord piece, ‘La Poule’, mimicking the clucking of a hen, is contained within the Suite in G-major/minor of around 1728, as also is the famous ‘Les Sauvages’, later re-used in the opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes; in each case the performances are fresh and enthusiastic.
Devine’s crisp and attentive playing is well suited to the bright tone of the harpsichord by Ian Tucker which is based on an instrument of 1636 by the great Antwerp maker Andreas Ruckers. It is not as resonant, but that lends undoubted clarity to the music’s textures. Indeed, in the simpler two-part arrangements of a considerable number of the items from Les Indes Galantes as an independent publication by Rameau on the final disc (recorded by Devine later than the other two) the instrument sounds like a different one with its tinnier timbre, though that may be owing to the relatively more confined, less reverberant space of the Chapel in Sidney Sussex College as compared with the Church of St John the Evangelist.
Christophe Rousset’s recording of these works might contain a touch more Gallic flair, but Devine is consistent in his own interpretive terms, and the fact that the temperament ordinaire to which the latter’s harpsichord is tuned (a=415) is rather more equal than Rousset’s may make Devine’s account more readily appealing to ears more attuned to modern tuning conditions, without compromising the expectations of those apprised of authentic performance practice. Devine’s set is also more complete than Rousset’s insofar as the former includes here the arrangements of instrumental numbers from Les Indes Galantes. Three of these are literal transcriptions of the orchestral score, making it impossible for two hands alone to realise them, and so the assistance of Robin Bigwood is enlisted in order to provide a third hand on the manuals.
Devine does not fully explain that the so-called Cinq Pièces (in fact only four) where, in the original, the harpsichord is accompanied by other instruments. Rameau specified that these could be performed on the keyboard alone, although he only wrote out arrangements to demonstrate how they might be played (which, again, Rousset does not feature). However, the independent piece, Les Petits Marteaux, which is only attributed to Rameau is not included. Nonetheless this is an admirable and rewarding survey of this essential part of the composer’s output.