Saturday, September 12, 2015

The PHOENIX Ensemble in the Israeli premiere of J-Ph. Rameau's complete chamber music

In a program titled “Tradition and Innovation”, Ensemble PHOENIX opened its 2015-2016 season with the Israeli premiere of the complete collection of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pièces de clavecin en concerts”. Performing them were Geneviève Blanchard – Baroque flute/piccolo, Noam Schuss-violin, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba. This writer attended the performance in the Ran Baron Hall of the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on September 8th, 2015.

 Best known for his operas and solo harpsichord music, J-Ph. Rameau (1683-1764) composed only one collection of chamber music works, but this work stands alone as a masterpiece and a groundbreaker in the chamber music genre. There are five trios – the composer referred to them as “concerts” - each having three movements, apart from the second, which comprises four.  Rameau worked on them from 1737 to 1741, taking the initiative of giving each instrument an independent role; they were inspired by Gaspar LeRoux and Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, both of whom had published harpsichord pieces with violin accompaniment. Rameau wrote: “I have given them the form of little suites for harpsichord, violin or flute, and viol or second violin”; he considered the collection to be predominantly pieces for solo harpsichord. Interestingly, he published them in score form, not common at the time, to allow each player to follow all parts.

 As to the various extra-musical titles of pieces, the composer devised them with the help of his friends. How truly programmatic they are remains unclear, but the titles certainly serve an important purpose: they offer the listener a glimpse into the composer’s rich imagination, to members of his circle and into the lifestyle of wealthy musical patrons enjoying the arts and life’s delights, in general. The PHOENIX players also made it clear from the outset that these were no suites of stylized and impersonal courtly dances, no music that might float past the ears of noble society.  And the pieces are not as abstract as how we might nowadays conceive the “chamber music” genre. These “concerts” are a genre unto their own in every way, inviting the listener to ponder Thamas Kouli Khan, hero of a pseudo-historical novel set in Persia in La Coulicam (1st concert), musical acquaintances such as in La Laborde (a harpsichord child prodigy  who later wrote a book on the harpsichord in which he denounced equal temperament tuning as a vice!), La Boucon (a prominent woman harpsichordist), La Forqueray, La Marais and La Cupis (Marie-Anne de Cupis, a brilliant dancer, appeared in performances of several of Rameau's operas. She was the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre, to wear ballet slippers, the calf-length ballet skirt and the now standardized tights), patrons of the arts (La Livri, La Poplinière) and even a place - Le Vezinet - a picturesque countryside town in the environs of Paris, a location offering much to delight  visitors. The collection does include some dance movements – the menuet, tambourin  – as well as a few character pieces – L’agaçante (the annoying one), La timide, L’indiscrète, La pantomime..

 The strength of the PHOENIX performance was the artists’ in depth enquiry and insight into each and every movement of the concerts, an exceptionally rich and motley collection of pieces - French music spiced with some Italian flavors. In their study of them, the concept of each piece has undergone fine chiseling to result in splendid execution of Rameau’s huge range of ideas, from the elegant rondeau of La Livri (1st Concert), its delicate, sedate and aristocratic melody (a “tombeau” dedicated to the Comte de Livri who had died that year) fashioned by the flute (Blanchard), to the folksy drone of pipes and heavy-footed enjoyment of La pantomime (4th Concert), punctuated by some small musical comments. Reference to folk music was also represented by the two tambourins (3rd Concert), the tambourin being a lively, duple Provençal dance form much liked and used by Rameau.  Here, Blanchard played the melody on piccolo, reminding the listener that the tambourin would have originally been played on a small flute. In La Cupis (5th concert), flute and viol duet and converse gracefully, the viol (Herzog) utilizing the high register to meet the graceful flute at certain moments, at others, returning to support the harpsichord bass line.  Rameau’s musical portrait La Forqueray (5th Concert) is a true masterpiece; in this gregarious fugue (celebrating the wedding that year of the great player and composer, Rameau’s friend) there was much give and take between harpsichord (Minkin) and violin (Schuss).  The fine teamwork in L’agaçante (2nd Concert), with its opposing registers and unpredictable phrases punctuated by small pauses, made for interesting listening.  We also receive an introduction to Monsieur Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Poplinière, an especially rich tax-farmer and patron of the arts, at whose Paris mansion the best of chamber music was performed and heard. (Rameau, who received financial support from La Poplinière, was idolized by him and, it seems, also by his wife.) I enjoyed the jolly and slightly pompous description of the gentleman in La La Poplinière (3rd Concert) as the players halted here and there to allow the M. de La Poplinière to pose…or was he bowing?

 The heart of the “Pièces de clavecin en concerts” is the harpsichord, its fully written-out obbligato part demanding and virtuosic. Marina Minkin’s reading of it was secure, interesting and brilliant in execution. The viol part, however, is also extremely challenging; from his instructions to the viol player, it is clear the Rameau was well aware of some of the impossibility of his demands! Herzog imagines it may have been played by Forqueray. She was playing on an original Andrea Castagnery 7-string French viol, built in 1744, three years after the concerts were published. The Baroque expertise of all four artists took the pieces beyond that of technical know-how, recreating the evocative selection of musical vignettes in all their intricate detail. Altogether, the ensemble’s careful and strategic consensus on such elements as tempo, ornamentation, doubling and inégal playing made for a result that was stylish, personal, convincing and enormously enjoyable.  


No comments: