Waking up early on a cold Sunday morning to attend a Baroque music concert may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea; yet the filled seats of the Theatre des Champs-Elysées proved otherwise. Hundreds had braved the morning cold to come and see Jean Rondeau, one of the newest and most popular names in classical music in France and abroad. At barely 21, he won first prize at the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition and was named the following year the most promising musician in Europe. Keen to bring the harpsichord out of its dusty cupboard and into a more “cool” light, Jean Rondeau is now taking the French radio and concert halls by storm, quickly making a name for himself and his mastery of the harpsichord. Having also studied classical piano and jazz improvisation at the Paris and London conservatoires, it is no giant leap to call Rondeau a veritable keyboard master.

Jean Rondeau © Edouard Bressy | Warner Classics
Jean Rondeau
© Edouard Bressy | Warner Classics

Though a jazz pianist may not be everyone’s first choice when finding the next harpsichord virtuoso, the harpsichord and the keyboard being two completely different instruments with each a unique touch and texture, it was clear from the opening Prélude (Fantaisie) BWV997 and BWV894 by Bach that this was not simply a jazz pianist “having a go” at Baroque music. Rondeau’s touch, both strong yet nimble, made swift work of Bach’s intricate fugal textures. Though perhaps occasionally a little slack and casual with the tempo, the opening preludes swiftly woke up any of those in the audience still yet completely awake.

Once warmed up, Rondeau then tackled the infamous Chaconne BWV1004. Initially composed for violin and here transcribed for harpsichord by Brahms (one of the work’s lesser known transcriptions), Bach’s Chaconne is an immense work, full of technical chordal accompaniment supporting and accompanying a beautiful melody. However, the work’s true value lies not simply in its melodic or technical elements, but precisely in the combination of the two. The spreading of complex chords emphasises the first beat of the bar whilst adding continuous coloration. Similarly, the virtuosic runs throughout the work are nonetheless designed to accentuate precise notes, thereby continuing the melodic development. Transcribing for piano a work originally composed for violin risks removing almost all technical challenges: the dexterous technicality of the work for violin precisely prevents the performer from rushing the runs or chordal passages, thus assuring a steady melodic continuity and phrasing. Though performed from memory with apparent ease and technical perfection by Rondeau, the lack of rhythmic “rigidity” (not to be confused with rhythmic “stiffness”) resulted in many of the runs being unintelligible. It is through this rigidity that the work’s melody is brought out, and it is precisely, and unfortunately, this rigidity that was somewhat missing in Rondeau’s performance.

Showing no sign of weariness after two preludes, a fugue and the mighty Chaconne, Rondeau beautifully tackled Bach’s Italian Concerto BWV971, before finally bringing on his Nevermind Baroque Ensemble, made up of Anne Besson (flute), Louis Creac’h (violin), Robin Pharo (viola da gamba), for Bach’s Musical Offering BWV1079. Moving from soloist to accompanist in the blink of an eye, Rondeau showed great care and attention in supporting the ensemble, at ease and seemingly synchronised with the musicians, they themselves clearly very attentive to the instrumental forces and careful not to overpower any of the other voices. Such care made for a flawless and highly enjoyable performance.

Normally accustomed to attending concerts in the evening, this particular Sunday morning concert full of energy made the perfect case for such events: what better way to start one’s day than with a passionate performance by a young musician wholly capable of captivating and entertaining an audience, to the point of humorously conversing with them mid-concert. Unafraid of breaking some of the conventions of classical concerts, Jean Rondeau is a breath of fresh air in today’s classical music scene. Was I cold? Yes. Was I tired? Yes. Was it nonetheless totally worth it…?

Absolutely.