Thursday, September 6, 2012

Christoph Rousset: an incomplete discography

French harpsichordist Christoph Rousset will be coming to San Diego this season, and this should be cause for great celebration, at least for those of us who collect harpsichord recordings. Meaning no disrespect to the late Gustav Leonhardt, but I was never motivated to collect many of his recordings—a fact that may shock some. However, I own many of Rousset’s solo recordings, making him the leading contributor to my collection of harpsichord recordings. (For the record, I have only 209 solo harpsichord recordings, representing 95 artists. If you think that is a lot, you should chat with SDEMS Artist Director, Laurent Planchon, who is a serious collector.)

In preparation for Rousett’s April 9 concert, I thought I would share some thoughts about a couple of my personal favorites. These are by no means official SDEMS positions, and your mileage may vary. Laurent and I have dueled over our perceived strengths and weaknesses of these recordings for many years. In fact, I find as the years go by that I have come to better appreciate some of which I considered to be his “lesser” recordings, and I reserve the right to change my opinions at any time.

Rousset’s first recording that really grabbed me by the ears was his 1993 recording of the Pi├Ęces de Clavecin of Pancrace Royer, for which he was awarded the “Diapason d’Or”. Up until then I believe that Royer’s music—some of the latest in the harpsichord repertoire—was largely ignored outside of France. This recording by the then young artist caught everyone’s attention, if only for its electrifying performance of Le Vertigo. This recording was an exercise in both energy and suave subtlety and I think it marks the point at which I became seriously passionate about the harpsichord. Rousset recorded on the 1751 Hemsch, one of the great historical instruments and a favorite of his in his early recording years.

Just as Glenn Gould re-recorded his defining performance of the Goldberg Variations later in life, Rousset re-recorded the Royer in 2008, this time on the 1749/1784 Goujon. This later recording has the advantages of improved recording technology, but to my ears the energy and concept is unchanged. If you have neither recording, or for that matter nothing of Rousett’s, I would order this later release right away. When you receive it, play it with your very best high fidelity setup, perhaps with the volume up just a little, and don’t forget to wear a sweater, because you will get the chills when Le Vertigo is performed.

Although Rousset is closely associated with French music, his recordings of German composers should not be missed. He received a Cannes award in 1995 for his recording of Bach’s Partitas. His recording of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, is especially memorable and sadly out of print. One of Rousset’s earliest released recordings (1992) was of the music of J. J. Froberger. Sadly, this fine recording is no longer available; although I still find the sound on it a bit harsh, Rousset approaches with just the right amount of German clarity and French subtlety. Fortunately, Rousset released a new Froberger recording in 2009, this time brilliantly recorded on the 1701 Couchet. This recording is memorable for at least two reasons (other than the fabulous sound). First of all, this isn’t a compendium of “Froberger’s Best,” but rather six of the early suites from 1649 and 1656. Secondly, Rousset has applied his deep understanding of the French dance forms to some of what are arguably some of the earliest examples of the French Suite that were to become the rage of the Baroque. It is a unique take on tempi and articulation.

I’ve just scratched the surface. In the process, I just realized that I had not ordered Rousset’s latest recording of the music of Marchand and Rameau. Yikes! I guess that will make it 210 harpsichord recordings.
Now is the time to order your season tickets. In addition to the International Series, which includes Rousset’s performance, you won’t want to miss the Recital Series. Visit the SDEMS web site for details.
—Kemer