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Satirino records · Rameau - Opera & Ballet Transcriptions

Rameau - Opera & Ballet Transcriptions

Dardanus, Castor et Pollux, Pygmalion, Les Indes galantes

Kenneth Weiss    harpsichord

Satirino records SR092 - released on 21st November 2003 

Recorded at
Cité de la musique, Salle de l’Amphithéâtre 7-9 VII 2003
Harpsichord preparation and technical assistance
Jean-Claude Battault
Karoly Mostis - Marpurg 1/6 comma
Sound engineer
Jiri Heger
Jiri Heger, Musica Numeris France
Alessandra Galleron & Jiri Heger, Musica Numeris France
le monde est petit
Steve Raymer (Corbis Sygma)

Coproduction Cité de la musique, Paris

Cm Logo Paris

This recording was made on two harpsichords in the Musée de la musique in Paris :

Harpsichord signed Jean-Claude Goujon, Paris, before 1749; ravalement by Jacques Joachim Swanen, Paris, 1784, On permanent loan from the Mobilier National to the Musée de la musique, Paris, inventory No.E.233

Harpsichord by Jean-Henri Hemsch, Paris, 1761
Collection of the Musée de la musique, Paris, inventory No.E.974.3.1

Press reviews

‘As a former musical assistant to William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, Weiss knows very well how to translate the varied gestures and kinetic energy of Rameau's beguiling dances from the orchestra pit to the manuels of a harpsichord. His playing, refined in its technique and communicative in its inflections, pulsates with life... an exhilarating recital, with a recording that faithfully captures the character of two fine instruments by Goujon (c1740) and Hemsch (1761).’
Nicholas Anderson, BBC Music Magazine
‘Jean-Philippe Rameau sparkles under Kenneth Weiss's fingers. The transcriptions of the genius of Dijon's opera and ballet pieces are a pure sensual pleasure.’
Le Figaro

Liner note

by Richard Langham Smith

When the revival of Early Music began in earnest there were those whose hackles involuntarily rose at any notion of transcription. At last Busoni’s piano version of the Bach Chaconne would become redundant; those awful Saint-Saëns confectioned renderings of the ‘old masters’ could be relegated to the attic; and Paderewski’s piano 78s of Couperin superseded by countless harpsichord versions!

Times have changed: false notions of authenticity have long been abandoned and interest in musical history as a social phenomenon has caused the blue flame of composer-intention to waver, if not to blow out completely. Musical creation is not the prerogative of composers, it has at last been realised: the chain of recreators who follow are at least as necessary to the essential dialogue between music and those who appreciate it.

So players are not only re-exploring the vast repertoire of existing transcriptions but are themselves having a go, extending the art into new territory. Michel Pletnev delights his listeners with amazing post-Godowski transcriptions of Tchaikovsky ballets while Bobby McFerrin sings a Vivaldi double cello concerto at the Proms. Steel-and-found-objects-bands find ways of playing the most virtuosic of classical lollipops. Whatever next? Certainly there will be something, for the barrel of transcription hasn’t yet run dry. To parody the old adage about translation: ‘transcrire c’est récréer!’

In the case of the present recording, it is perhaps less pertinent to point out the extent to which harpsichord transcription was a fertile art than to stress the longevity of the tradition of bringing home a keyboard version of a live spectacle. Certainly through the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, the tradition of bringing out versions of operas and ballets in transcriptions for piano solo was continued by many publishers. Those who had fond memories of the spectacle could relive them on the piano at home, perhaps share them with a treasured companion, suitor or indeed lover. It was a tradition which could be traced back at least to Lully; and Rameau was one of several who provided a model of how to do it. All the present recording does is to take us a little further than history has bequeathed.

Added to this social function is the art of transcription itself: in a word, transcription must be ‘fun’. J. S. Bach delighted himself and his interpreters in his virtuosic transcriptions of Vivaldi, not only adding counterpoints here and there, but finding wild ways of transcribing orchestral effects for organ and harpsichord alike. Likewise his French counterpart Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727-1799) who was certainly the most important exponent of the art of transcription as regards Rameau. A crucial manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France has preserved his transcriptions of operatic numbers by both Mondonville and Rameau - found on tracks 14-18 of the present recording. This internationally renowned figure attracted extensive admiration from the English musical traveller Charles Burney who noted that his harpsichord was decorated ‘better than the finest snuff-box’ with the story of Rameau’s most famous opera, Castor and Pollux. Balbastre delighted Parisian audiences - and his congregation at the church of St Roch in Paris -not only with his own works but also with transcriptions of all kinds of music including hunting pieces, jigs and Rameau overtures, dances and arias. We know that Rameau heard and admired his transcription of the overture to Pygmalion at the house of the patron La Pouplinière in Passy.

The first group of pieces come from Rameau’s tragédie Dardanus which was first given in 1739 and is set in Phrygia, now part of Turkey. Love and war are the principal subjects and the prologue is set in a utopian setting: Cupid’s palace on the Isle of Cythera. The A major overture [Track 1] gives little hint that behind Cupid, on his throne of flowers, lurk personifications of jealousy, trouble and suspicion. These movements transcribe brilliantly and idiomatically for harpsichord, almost as if they were conceived for the instrument and then orchestrated: a process which happens later in the opera when Rameau reworks his harpsichord piece of some years earlier Les Niais de Sologne, transforming it into a duet and a chorus. The left-hand arpeggios of the Menuet, [Track 2] for example, are reminiscent of similar textures in the 1724 book of harpsichord pieces (such as Les tendres plaintes) while the first Rigaudon [Track 3] emerges perfectly as a cross-hands piece.

The Prélude from Act I introduces another formulaic genre from French Baroque opera: the slumber scene [Track 4]. Dardanus, sleeping originally without the plucking of the harpsichord, has sweet reveries bestowed on him by a trio of Dreams. The act introduces the warlike Phrygians and the message is that victory in battle will lead to the pleasures of love, exemplified in the Menuet tendre en rondeau [Track 5].

Act II is set in a lonely place with a temple in the background as Isménor, a magician, prophesies the future. Unpredictable harmonies portray the supernatural element in this ritournelle. [Track 6] A pair of Tambourins, originally from the end of the Prologue, once again transcribing for harpsichord particularly idiomatically, lead to the final Chaconne. [Tracks 7–8]

The sequence of music from the tragédie Castor et Pollux, first given in 1737, marries text and dance in Rameau’s inimitable way. In the entry of Hebe [Track 9] delicate counterpoints portray the ‘immortal garlands’ promised by the Chorus of Celestial Pleasures:

Let Hebe of flowers ever new
Make everlasting garlands for you!

The following Airs close this scene in which Hebe invokes Pollux to indulge in a life of endless hedonism. The first, [Track 10] in the extreme sharp key of E major, associated with the pleasures of love, has both grace and elaborate ornament while the second [Track 11] is a touch more serious.

The first Gavotte, with its unusual lilting rhythm, comes from the end of the Prologue which ends with a formulaic mix of chorus, dance and aria where Venus and Love have won over Mars, the God of war. [Track 12] Given the frequency with which composers used opera to mirror contemporary political events, this may be an allegorical reference to the peace of Vienna, signed in 1736, to conclude the war of the Polish succession. All and sundry are incited to revelry and mirth. The hesitant Gavotte, danced at first, is followed by a second which is more angular. This melts back into a texted version of the first Gavotte, a favourite device of Rameau. Short-breathed phrases sigh in praise of earthly love:

More brilliantly
Peace and delight
Be constant
Fulfilling my desires;
Loves shall bring endless days of joy

It can hardly be said that the final pair of Passepieds in Act IV [Track 13] explore a new theme: the music is very different, but Castor, slain at the beginning of the tragedy and now in the Elysian Fields (the real Champs-Elysées), is, even in death, still seeking to dull his cares with endless pleasures. The happy shades attend him, once again in the hedonistic key of E major. In the extraordinary first Passepied the beat is thrown all over the place in a prolonged series of hemiolas. This is followed by an Air for a shade-soloist and a second, quicker Passepied. The simple but beautiful melody of the Air is tinged with gentle diatonic dissonances and accompanied by a high bass-part, off-the-ground and contrasting with the earthly (and earthy) drive of the surrounding dances. The shades tell of the pleasures of this male-oriented utopia in a series of cooing arias:

As many loves as there are flowers
As many lovers as there are beautiful girls
And the beauties are eternally faithful
While the suitors are always successful
And there are always new flowers to pick.

Terrible storms ensue, but Castor and his brother Pollux are finally granted immortality.

Rameau’s Acte de ballet Pygmalion was first given in 1748, a time when there was a particular vogue for the single act opera-ballet. Its Overture loses nothing of Rameau’s abundant fertility of characterisation in Balbastre’s witty transcription. The themes of both sections of the overture [Track 14] have a repeated-note motive to represent Pygmalion chipping away at the statue he is sculpting of his beloved. Balbastre at times skilfully reduces the texture to the bare minimum required to give the illusion of the harmony, and at others demands that the player pounds the instrument with full chords at the extremities of the keyboard. He is particularly clever at exploiting the resonant bass with a device where the left hand rotates rather than hammers, giving the harpsichord a chance to speak more clearly at a higher speed. And as Pygmalion, having chipped away thoughtfully at first, suddenly goes into overdrive, chiselling at breakneck speed and entirely relentlessly, he collaborates with Rameau in humorous mischief.

This is followed by one of Rameau’s masterstrokes both musically and in terms of stagecraft: Pygmalion teaches the statue to dance in a continuous ordre in which the dances are not only strongly contrasted but also slip unexpectedly into one another. [Track 15] The slow air which opens the sequence has deliciously lingering suspensions, wooing us into reverie, only to be gently awakened by the notes coulées of the Gavotte gracieuse, itself to be swept away before it has cadenced by a dovetailed Minuet, high in the register. After this, ringing the changes, Rameau hesitates before the next movement rather than sweeping on. This time we have a Gavotte gaie replete with echo effects. Changes of mode and key are skilfully used further to vary this compressed suite of dances. After the minor mode Chaconne, the trochaic rhythms of the Loure, noble and poised, as well as the Passepied which follows, are in C major: a clever device because it enables Rameau to slip easily into F minor, the dark key of the chant lugubre for the Sarabande, unusual for its imitation between treble and bass. A change back to the major is easily achieved for the rollicking Tambourin which ends this unique dancing lesson. Then comes a Gigue [Track 16] and the Pantomime (subtitled an Air Gai) [Track 17] which is a fine of example of Rameau the gifted tunesmith with an inexhaustible ability to write memorable dance tunes, always with unpredictable hesitations and unusually captivating turns of phrase. It occurs as the crowd enters dancing, after the Graces have taught the statue to dance. The Contredanse is the final movement of this Acte de ballet. [Track 18]

While one recurrent theme of French Baroque Opera was the idealisation of hedonism another was the representation of the exotic. No opera typified this aspect of French spectacle more than Les Indes Galantes, a title notoriously difficult to translate but signifying foreign lands and their customs, particularly as regards lovemaking. What Rameau’s Opéra-Ballet lacks in story-line it makes up for in the variety of its exotic locations which range from Peru, Turkey, red-Indian North America and Persia to locations nearer home: Spain, Italy and Poland. A long as we all make love, the issues that divide us will somehow miraculously disappear. Once again Hebe is the mistress of ceremonies.

Increasingly throughout the eighteenth, and throughout the nineteenth century, exotic spectacles delighted in the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. Without going as far as Berlioz, who portrayed the Nubian slaves in Les Troyens with oriental scales and prescribed percussion, Rameau began to compose music which itself leant towards the exotic in its representations of the various entrées.

The Poles open the sequence in the opera, clearly pigeonholed as a galumphing, clog-trotting bunch of flat-footed peasants, for their Air is the reverse of tendre, with unexpected fortes and constantly awkward leaps. [Track 20] They hardly seem to fulfil Hebe’s wish that they start the day with ‘Terpsichore’s glorious games’ but the awkward air serves a dramatic function since the gloriously flowing Musette en rondeau [Track 19] which opens the sequence on the present recording. promises to transform the scene into a ‘smiling grove’ only to be interrupted by the warlike drums of Bellone. The conflict between love and duty - another preoccupation of Baroque opera - is encapsulated in the Air pour les Amants et les Amantes, who are in fact the followers of Bellone, torn between love and duty. [Track 21]

Rameau’s transcription of this is highly imaginative, with rushing scales representing the warriors whose aim is to recruit the lovers, while the lovers’ entreaties are marked ‘tendrement, sans altérer le mesure’ (tenderly but without altering the beat). The conflict is, as always with this master of characterisation, encapsulated in the music itself.

The Airs de Bostangis [Track 22] were originally the Airs of the Persians, retitled in the later performances (the spectacle enjoyed countless revivals and editions). The ‘Bostangis’ was the name given to the Eunuchs who looked after the harems, and particularly their gardens. A Gavotte [Track 23] separates this from the remaining dances and airs which come from the Ballet of the flowers in the third entrée of the spectacle. [Tracks 24–30] It is set in Persia, renowned in particular for its roses (we may recall the ‘Roses d’Isphahan’, the poem of Leconte de Lisle so memorably set by Fauré). The plot of this delightful ballet, so typical of the exotic and fantastic representations of the high baroque speaks for itself:

This ballet is a picturesque representation of the fate of theflowers in a garden. They are personified by dancers as are Boreas, the North Winds and Zephyr in order to bring to life this gallant scene, enacted by comely slaves of both sexes. At first the brightest-coloured flowers dance together in constantly changing formations. Their Queen, the rose, dances alone. The spectacle is interrupted by a storm brought by Boreas. All the flowers sense his fury but the rose resists longest against this enemy who has come to persecute her. Boreas’s steps express his impetuosity and anger while those of the rose depict her gentleness and her fears. Zephyr arrives bringing calm weather, reviving and unbending the flowers cowering beneath the storm he confirms their triumph and his own, paying tender homage to the rose.

A delightful Gavotte en rondeau, [Track 31] originally from the Incas’ entrée, leads to the majestic and virtuosic Chaconne [Track 32] which Rameau wrote for the Amerindian fourth entrée Les Sauvages added in later performances. It could hardly be in greater contrast to the Chaconne from Dardanus, which is so deliciously tender, while this shows the composer at his fieriest.

Richard Langham Smith 

Note by Kenneth Weiss

There is a vast and varied repertoire written for harpsichord, yet increasing the repertoire through transcriptions of much-loved works originally created for other genres is particularly satisfying. The process of transferring a tonal vocabulary from orchestral writing to idiomatic keyboard writing is a unique challenge. An appropriate phrasing has to be found, and appropriate articulation, touch, timing and registration are needed to recreate the experience of the original.

This recording contains both Rameau’s and Balbastre's transcriptions as well as my own. In creating new transcriptions of Suites from Dardanus, Castor and Pollux and selections from Pygmalion, I have naturally used theirs as models.

Rameau sometimes uses a two voice texture, adding only a sixteen foot resonance at cadences. At other times he chooses a grander texture with three and four voices. Perhaps, as with many eighteenth century composers, Rameau’s publications were meant to flatter the ever-increasing number of amateur players by including rather simple pieces along with more difficult ones that were beyond their reach. In any case, before recordings made it possible to play one’s favourite tunes from the opera at home, transcriptions were the only possible way to recreate the music.

Having had the opportunity to be repetiteur for a number of fully-staged Rameau operas with the French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, I saw at first hand how it is possible to translate the sound of a rich orchestral score into a satisfying experience for harpsichord alone. With the constant rehearsal needed for staging a work, the repetiteur's principal role is to serve as a substitute for the orchestra, often playing from the full score and thus having a sense of the instrumentation constantly in mind. This is transcription in its most vital form and the repetiteur will adapt his or her style spontaneously - for example creating a thrilling storm-scene by playing broken chords in both hands instead of simple octaves.

Thus I was able to experiment at will with creating an arrangement at my harpsichord. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with continuo playing where the main objective is to enliven the work with an improvisation based on the bass line, properly judging the affect and style to enhance the interpretation as a whole. And of course, playing the two exquisite instruments on this recording, so rich in colours and history, graciously made available by the Musée de la musique in Paris, was an indescribable inspiration.

Kenneth Weiss, September 2003, Montauk, New York

Track list


1 Ouverture 2'40
2 1er Menuet 1'25
3 Rigaudons 1 & 2 2'57
4 Prélude - Sommeil 3'40
5 2e Menuet tendre 1'32
6 Ritournelle vite 1'04
7 Tambourins 1 & 2 1'35
8 Chaconne 5'51 

Castor & Pollux 

9 Entree d’Hébé 2'20
10 1er Air pour Hébé 1'50
11 2e Air pour Hébé 1'50
12 1ère & 2e Gavotte 2'50
13 Passepieds 1 & 2 - Air 3'04


14 Ouverture 3'19
15 Les Grâces… 5'55
16 Giga 2'36
17 Pantomine 1'47
18 Contredanse 1'22 

Les Indes Galantes 

19 Musette en Rondeau 1'32
20 Air Polonois 1'48
21 Air pour les Amants et Amantes 1'38
22 1er et 2e Air pour les Bostangis 3'20
23 Gavotte 1'29
24 Air des Fleurs 1'01
25 Air tendre pour la Rose 1'48
26 Gavotte pour les Fleurs 1'03
27 Gavotte vive pour les Fleurs 0'42
28 Air pour Borée et la Rose 1'37
29 Air pour Zéphire 0'35
30 Air vif pour Zéphire et la Rose 2'49
31 1ère Gavotte, 2e Gavotte en Rondeau 1'45
32 Chaconne 5'38

Total CD 74'57