Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful.
What might have been a confusion of bedfellows in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall did not turn out to be so. Returning to the hall after intermission one saw the instrumentalists of Les Violons du Roy, a period orchestra fronted by a large Steinway, its lid held high. This would have been sacrilege in Boston, but it worked. Marc-André Hamelin, that master of pianistic detail, found easy company with the subtle players of the renowned orchestra. Les Violons are not afraid to make a luscious sound now and then. In the slow air from Rameau’s Les Boreads which opened the concert, the bassoon solo gave us what might have been the most beautiful five minutes of the evening—her counter-melody just that little bit too slow and its sound beguiling.
Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography.
If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.