Two notes ring out in total darkness. Then, a trill, arpeggiating and scattering, slowly building into the chromatic landscape of Frescobaldi’s Toccata Settima. As the light comes on over the stage of La Chaux-de-Fonds’ Salle de Musique, Jean Rondeau pulls us slowly into the rich world of “Melancholy Grace”, his showcase for a selection of carefully chosen 16th- and 17th-century harpsichord pieces from Italy, Flanders and England.

Jean Rondeau
© Perspectives Musiques | © Etienne GM

The array of pavanes, toccatas and balli d’arpicordo has been selected with the clear aim of shining a light on the instrument’s sheer range and potential. Under Rondeau’s fingers, the harpsichord – a modern red-and-gold Philippe Humeau creation inspired by the quirks and charms of period instruments – doesn’t just sing. It inhabits an impressive gamut from a dark bronze tone to crystalline upper ranges; individual notes left shimmering in the air or layered in complex, moving chords. Sometimes, it sounds like a delicately plucked lute or a harp; at other moments, almost like an organ – and played with pedals, surely, because how else can so many fugue lines be sustained at once? 

Rich, complex, fascinating, this late-Renaissance world is never austere. From the virtuosic scales of Bull’s Melancholy Pavan to the vivacious fireworks of Picchi’s Ballo alla Polacha con il suo Saltarello, the harpsichord really gets a chance to show off its polyphonic glory. Which isn’t to say that the programme is all early-modern Sturm und Drang. With Gregorio Strozzi’s gorgeous Toccata quarta per l’elevatione, Rondeau gives every line time to breathe, leaning into the growing tension and shifting modal landscape both figuratively and quite literally – often, I would glance up to find him hunched over, as if gazing into the very heart of his instrument and plucking every single note out by ear. The result is astonishingly modern-sounding, like Keith Jarrett on the cusp of the Baroque. 

That being said, the label of enfant terrible is an odd fit, bird’s-nest hair notwithstanding. In the introductory conference the previous evening, Rondeau came across as thoughtful, bright, sensitive, and above all fiercely dedicated to authenticity. His perceived rebellion against conventional performance style is largely shaped by a desire to celebrate a pre-even-tempering golden age, in all its mesotonic beauty and weirdness. Rondeau doesn’t just want to be a musicologist, or a conservator of the music of this era: he is searching for its deepest, most fundamental truth. In the programme notes for the recording of “Melancholy Grace” (released by Warner Classics), he describes a dream of hearing “the music of Renaissance composers ringing out in the heart of the night, like the delicate echo of long-ago stars, still shining down on us.” To hear Jean Rondeau play is to understand a little of what he means.