Composers get too much credit. There is such fawning over the authors of music, especially certain composers. Mozart is a perfect example. Yes, he wrote some glorious music that stands out from the piles of conventional, trite, saccharine trivia he usually spun out in profusion. Many lesser known, and less prolific composers have left us with music that deserves more attention. There’s also the overstated praise for certain performers. Commonly overlooked is the fact that a composition is just ink blots on paper until a human transforms those blotches into musical sound; and for that requires more from a performer than mere technical skill or stage presence. The process of realizing a composer’s work is the other side of the equation. The process takes certain indefinable qualities. Fame and popularity do not guarantee a great outcome from the drops of ink on a page.
Musicians have to make choices—honor the historic manners, the composer’s notation, the current style, a teacher’s instruction, or one’s own instincts. The performer’s choices will define remarkable differences in the feel, the sound—the bringing to life of a piece of music. In some cases, it can make or break a piece. In any case, it’s an interpretational opinion that can’t be said to be right or wrong. It’s a personal view of the performer—and the listener.
Jean-Philippe Rameau, a late rococo baroque French composer, was most famous in his time for opera; today for his Pièces de Clavecin, dance suites for Harpsichord. Not having recordings of 18thC performances, compounded by the irregularity, and often not particularly specific notation by composers, leaves today’s performers with a large amount of interpretational leeway. That’s not say there aren’t strong opinions about what’s considered correct or stylistically compatible/incompatible with the music. But interpretation, when not stymied by convention, can open up a piece of music in bright new ways.
A few posts ago, I review Jory Vinikour’s spectacular CD of contemporary harpsichord music. His command of the instrument induced me to hear his side of Rameau’s clavier music. I already had two other recordings of this music, one by Christophe Rousset, another modern electronic version by jazz pianist Bob James—an exemplary, imaginative realization via the magic of multitrack digital synthesis.
So, which is the best? Rousset plays Rameau with enthusiasm and spirit, yet sometimes his energy falls on the crutch of rushing, playing too fast. Vinikour’s interpretation is consistently more measured, deliberate, majestic. His articulation seems to better define the individual contrapuntal lines. Yet that clarity, once in while, slumps into dragging, playing too slow. James’ perspective preserves hints of the original harpsichord sound, usually takes a middle ground on the tempo, and then, blasts off. He liberates the music from the limitations of the harpsichord—reconstructs and orchestrates a new architecture for Rameau’s ideas. James’ interpretation is jovial, he brings out the shear joy in the music; Rousset’s is vivacious, he moves it from stately dance to youthful gyration; Vinikour’s is regal, he intones the original sovereign roots. There are engaging qualities in each of the interpretations, and each shows us an alternate view of the same black dots.
Make up your own mind which appeals most to you—
As for the recordings, I prefer the Sono Luminus, or perhaps I prefer Jory’s instrument. The Wolf-Dumont harpsichord Jory plays sounds richer and fuller, and simultaneously clearer. How much is due to the recording technique; how much to the instrument? The Bob James is a superb early digital recording. I remember from even its original release on LP the amazingly clean sound. It demonstrates that implementation, not the medium, is key to high quality recordings.
(||) Rating — Music : A ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A+ ║ Bob James, Rameau, CBS Masterworks, 1984
(||) Rating — Music : A ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║ Christophe Rousset, Rameau Pièces de Clavecin, Editions L’Oiseau Lyre, 1991
(||) Rating — Music : A ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A+ ║ Jory Vinikour, The Complete Harpsichord Works of Rameau, Sono Luminus, 2012