Christophe Rousset plays rediscovered harpsichord classics

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday February 22, 2022
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Christophe Rousset plays rediscovered harpsichord classics

One of the most "baroque" things about the work of out early-music maestro Christophe Rousset is what a prodigious prodigy he is. From his international debut as a harpsichordist of uncommon taste and talent, he has gone on to found and lead Les Talens Lyriques, arguably the premiere instrumental ensemble of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) enterprise. His most public work is with the ensemble, which just celebrated a remarkable 30th anniversary with live performances of Jean-Baptiste Lully's little-known opera, Psyche.

Count on Psyche making its appearance on disc in short order; one of Rousset's most important contributions to the knowledge and appreciation of baroque music, French opera in particular, has been his brilliant return of the Lully cannon into the active repertoire.

Also as amazing, Rousset has continued to record (and sometimes perform) as a harpsichordist, which has revealed a musician not just of tireless virtuosity but fathomless interiority. Few keyboardists of any time have demonstrated such a deep connection to the instruments they play.

Rousset's most recent harpsichord recording is the unanticipated Le Manuscrit de Madame Theobon (Aparte). It was unanticipated because it is a "performance" of an original manuscript Rousset discovered online (eBay, no less!), bought, and now shared with the world. Likely an instructional collection of 17th-century harpsichord pieces, the manuscript as revealed by its new owner is an entrancing catalogue of the keyboard idioms of its time.

Christophe Rousset photo: Eric Larrayadieu  

In a tangy album note, Rousset unpacks what is known and what can be surmised about the manuscript and its namesake. Lydie de Theorbon, an attendant to Queen Maria Theresa, became a consort of King Louis XIV around 1670 and remained in his entourage at the chateau de Chambord until around 1872, when she was "expelled" from the court.

Rousset tells what more there is known to the story, but what seems of abiding interest to him is that the pieces in the manuscript were likely the kind Mademoiselle Theobon would have played as a courtier in the company of the greatest harpsichord teachers of the time.

Rousset performs the pieces on his own 1704 Nicolas Dumont harpsichord, an instrument of a brilliance and individuality ideal for its new owner, fresh from its decade-long restoration by David Ley. What first caught Rousset's eye, the visually striking "unmeasured" preludes so emblematic of the early French baroque, here become the "preludes" to newly made groups of the pieces, here arranged by key rather than manuscript order (also provided in the scrupulous notes).

Lest this all sound scholarly or over didactic, what Rousset has loosed on an unsuspecting world is music of startling buoyancy, vitality, and what I think we used to call character. His deep investment in the music of Lully (whose same-sexuality is but one of the many interesting things about his biography) allowed him to identify 34 of these 80 pieces as transcriptions of Lully's operas for the Sun King's court.

There isn't a slack moment in the two discs of music, and Rousset's sequencing of the pieces allows them to be heard in their full expressive variety. As but a single example, the "Gavotte d'Hardel" ends with the flourish of a "double" (variation) by Louis Couperin, godfather of French harpsichord music and the focus of one of Rousset's most absorbing recordings (Harmonia Mundi, 2018) on another instrument of great historical importance.

Rousset adds that the "instrumentation" of these striking pieces reflects that of Jean-Henri d'Anglebert, among the most illustrious musicians of King Louis XIV's court, whose complete harpsichord pieces are the subject of one of Rousset's other most important harpsichord recordings (Decca), now out of print but waiting on YouTube for your complete delectation.

Also new from the HIPsters
While we're in the neighborhood, there are several other new recordings that are among the finest flowerings of the enterprise of performing music on instruments and in styles reflective of their original eras, one of the most important and far-reaching musical developments of our time.

Debussy's opera 'Pelleas et Melisande;' Bach's 'St. Mathew Passion'  

Chief among them is the new recording of Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande (Harmonia Mundi). It's led by the musically curious and also prodigious Francois-Xavier Roth, like Rousset one of the most reliably revelatory exponents of everything he undertakes.

When what was then known as the original-instrument movement got underway a couple decades ago, no one would have expected its compass to include one of the great operas of the 20th century, but this Pelleas does have to be heard to be believed. There's nothing sonically eccentric about it, though some of it sounds newly composed, but the piece, based on live performances, has a deepened resonance and power.

The Easter Passion season will be on us soon enough, and this year provides a truly celebratory recording of Bach's St. Mathew Passion (Harmonia Mundi). Recorded in tandem with a live performance of the work during the depths of the pandemic, by Raphael Pichon's band, Pygmalion, it's both arrestingly original and deeply moving. Julian Pregardien is the Evangelist I've unknowingly waited a lifetime for, but the passion story is exquisitely, faithfully told by all the participants.

The soprano soloist is Sabine Devieilhe, which is reason enough to hear the recording despite the comparative paucity of soprano solos. To hear her at her most bracing, in Bach and Handel cantatas and arias (Erato), her new recording with Pygmalion (Pichon is her husband) is hair-raisingly good.

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