This year we are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Rameau’s death and the BBC Proms has invited French Baroque specialists Les Arts Florissants to give a pair of contrasting concerts of his music – an intimate chamber music prom featuring his Pièces de Clavecin en concerts and a solemn but dramatic late night prom of his grands motets. The former, which I attended, was performed by four musicians from the group, led by their young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu.

Interestingly, Pièces de Clavecin en concerts, consisting of five sets of “concerts”, is the only chamber music Rameau composed, and is rarely performed in full as it was here. It is originally scored for three instruments, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord (which has a written-out obbligato part rather than basso continuo), but Rameau instructed that the violin part could be replaced by the flute and the gamba part by a second violin. On this occasion, possibly in consideration of the size of the hall or for variety of instrumental colour, the group decided to add a flute to the violin part, sometimes doubling and sometimes substituting the violin. Although the formation may seem like a trio sonata, Rameau’s concert is not at all like a baroque trio sonata, but more a harpsichord suite accompanied by the violin and the gamba and looking forward towards a more classical idiom.

Each “concert” is comprised of three to five short movements which have typically French names: some are named after Rameau’s acquaintances (for example after his patron La Poplinière whose house these piece would have been performed), some are named after places (Le Vézinet) and characters (La timide etc), and there are some dance movements too. Perhaps these were musical character portraits which his circle of friends would have understood and enjoyed (almost like Elgar’s Enigma Variations). Rameau even named one movement after himself! – a lively and energetic movement in B flat major reflecting his strong-willed character.

The four players played with grace and subtlety displaying an easy rapport with each other, although at times the acoustical balance could be difficult because of the intimate nature of the work (ideally these works should be performed in a smaller salon-like space). As mentioned, Florence Malgoire (Baroque violin) and Charles Zebley (Baroque flute) shared the top part, although when they doubled up, often the flute was not audible. We could enjoy Zebley’s expressive playing in the gentler movements where he played the top part alone, such as in La Boucon (second concert) or La Cupis (fifth concert), But in fact the most interesting part was the gamba, virtuosically played by Emmanuel Balssa. As with the harpsichord, here the gamba is freed from the continuo role and it plays a versatile part switching between the melodic part (sometimes in a high range) and the bass part doubling the left hand of the harpsichord. On the harpsichord Paolo Zanzu also played with crisp virtuosity and sometimes with operatic gestures (for example in La pantomime in the fourth concert) but without any showiness, and there was a private, conversational feel between the musicians throughout.

It is useful to remind ourselves that although Rameau was born two years earlier than J.S.Bach and Handel, he outlived them both by several years, dying in 1764 at the age of 82. Rameau composed Pièces de Clavecin en concerts in 1741 (in the period between his operas Dardanus and Platée), which was around the time Bach was composing the Art of Fugue and Handel was composing Messiah. In some of the these pieces, Rameau’s writing seems to move away from Baroque idioms and there is a sense of fantasy which is perhaps closer to composers of the next generation such as C.P.E. Bach (another anniversary composer this year and theme of the next Proms Chamber Music). At the time it would have been connoisseur’s music of the highest order, and Les Arts Florissants brought it to life with subtle yet colourful playing.