Rameau for two harpsichords live
March 28, 2011 12:28 PM   Subscribe

An entire live recital with Skip Sempé and Pierre Hantaï at the Paris Musée de la musique from 25 mars 2011, on two historical harpsichords in very good condition, with (modern) arrangements of orchestral and chamber music by Jean Philippe Rameau

This link will be functional until 25 July 2011, long enough to enjoy.
posted by Namlit (15 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Gratuitous self-link, because I love Pierre Hantaï... he figures heavily in my Goldberg Grab Bag 2010, which you are all welcome to download and enjoy.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:35 PM on March 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is exceedingly good. Many thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 12:44 PM on March 28, 2011

I picked up Rameau's Treatise on Harmony (1722,) first edition in English, for $100 on Ebay. It was listed simply as, "a very old music theory book." It might have been more accurately listed as, "the very old music theory book."
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:48 PM on March 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

This makes me so happy. Thank you for making my afternoon a bit brighter.
posted by kataclysm at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2011

This looks awesome. I'm definitely looking forward to listening to it.
posted by immlass at 1:21 PM on March 28, 2011

Thanks. I've always liked harpsichord music but I still don't know much about it.
posted by dragonplayer at 2:35 PM on March 28, 2011

Thank you.
posted by joost de vries at 2:46 PM on March 28, 2011

I have heard harpsichord live before, but this does not sound like what I expected. There are a few parts that seem out of time and out of tune. Sort of like the players are having trouble getting the notes out and while trying to keep up the notes are a bit sharp or flat.

I understand that the mechanics of a harpsichord are different from a piano in that the strings are plucked and not hammered. Does this create a small amount of resistance between the moment when the key is first pressed and the moment the string is plucked? Could the age of the instrument's plucking mechanism be creating this effect? Am I missing something?
posted by chillmost at 2:47 PM on March 28, 2011


A few possibilities...

1) Just to get it out of the way, no live performance is perfect and with the amount of music they were both playing, there will always be little mistakes and wrong notes here and there. The recording industry, with its focus on "perfection" has made many listeners forget that mistakes always happen in live performance. For a concert such as this, I'm sure they didn't spend months throwing this together, and since the instruments are historical, they were probably limited in the amount of time they could actually rehearse with them.

2) The time issue. French baroque music doesn't work unless it's played with the correct "style." This encompasses so many facets of music making. Dynamics, rhythmic placement, phrasing, tempo, etc. On harpsichord, dynamics are limited but implied by the way the music is written for the instrument, and by which stops the player chooses (sort of like an organ.) So rhythm and phrasing are the most obvious ways a harpsichord player imbues the music with correct style. French baroque music can be very pompous, humorous, witty, full of character. At the same time, in certain works there is this unmistakably plangent sadness. Tough to put one's finger on. Listen to the music of Lully and you will hear it. If something seems out of time, it is usually a very calculated decision by the players (especially since there are two of them, they have decided in rehearsal where to take time, where to phrase a certain way, and so on.)

3) The tuning issue. The instruments are old and it's quite possible they don't hold their tuning as well as more modern instruments. Also, you might be perceiving things to be out of tune because the instruments are tuned way lower than modern keyboard instruments. Plus, before equal-temperament became the "NORM", music came in a variety of flavors as far as tuning.

I can tell you with confidence that both of these players are amazing harpsichordists. Pierre Hantaï is probably my favorite interpreter of Bach on the harpsichord for example. It might be because he is French and brings a kind of exuberance to the music he plays, even stuff as heady, structured and abstract as Bach.
posted by ReeMonster at 3:04 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, since I'm a professional harpsichordist myself, sorta half of my time, I'd better chime (hah) in to comment on chillmost's suggestions, and to elaborate on ReeMonster's excellent points.

1) resistance versus timing: not a problem, if the instrument is well regulated. A harpsichordist is trained to deal with that, and to play in time. The mechanism of these instruments may be in part old, but their regulation (voicing) is a routine maintenance thing.
The problem when you have two harpsichords (like two pianos) is to get the music exactly together. The attack of the instrument is so precise that every smallest deviation is audible. On top of this, we have here two guys who seem to be deliberately taking quite a lot of risks (there's a lot of quasi-improvisation going on throughout the concert as well, as compared to the orchestral originals), so the chances that some strewage occurs may be increased. Especially at the beginning, there's some stage nerves-related roughage too, this gets much better over time.

2) tuning.
a) the kind of attack does not influence the pitch of a harpsichord (unless something is wrong, which it isn't here). Either the instrument is in tune, or it isn't.
b) Good old harpsichords (and I've played both these particular instruments myself, years ago, they're great) most of the time keep their tuning well, and the better modern copies certainly should (not all of them do, however. New wood may even be trickier than historical). But here, they are filming and use these ridiculously strong lamps, and that always causes problems. So there's that, especially toward the end of the concert (although they most certainly re-tuned bits in the intermission. With those lamps, there's no way they didn't).
c) They're using some type of unequal temperament here (since it's French music, possibly this, or Rameau's own temperament, which I personally don't like much), which becomes obvious for the listener as soon as some keys (modes) sound more "outlandish" than others. That's a matter of historical practice and, up to a certain level, informed choice. If you're used to equal temperament it might be unexpected at first.

(Necessary disclaimer after these elaborations: as they are my colleagues, I certainly do know the soloists who play here, but I am in no way affiliated with, or invested in this concert, I didn't even know that it happened; I stumbled on this link by coincidence minutes before I posted it here.)
posted by Namlit at 4:21 PM on March 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Thanks, ReeMonster. I am listening to this now - I am aware of the dynamic limitations of harpsichords, but I was hearing dynamics anyway - you answered this question before I had the chance to ask!

My mom is going to love this - she is a huge harpsichord fan, but doesn't have one herself.
posted by Xoebe at 4:23 PM on March 28, 2011

What a find. Thank you.
posted by polymodus at 8:16 PM on March 28, 2011

Anyone know the title of solo piece or movement at 29:00? It is so touching.
posted by polymodus at 8:48 PM on March 28, 2011

Anyone know the title of solo piece or movement at 29:00? It is so touching.

Its a Sarabande from Rameau's Zoroastre
which comes from his a-minor harpsichord suite where it stands in a slightly different version (they seem to be playing some sort of a mix here, actually, between both versions).
posted by Namlit at 2:08 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This has made my afternoon - thank you so much for posting it!
posted by bibliogrrl at 10:50 AM on March 29, 2011

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