The second of this year’s Proms at… Cadogan Hall was a solo affair, with a recital from the young French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau. Rondeau, dressed casually, and appearing slightly uncomfortable with the journey from stage door to harpsichord, was totally in command the second he touched the instrument. We were treated to a selection of works from three French Baroque composers, Rameau, Couperin and the slightly lesser known Royer. Rondeau ended his programme with a première, another new work by a woman, as part of the Proms at… Cadogan’s marking of the 100th anniversary of some women in the UK winning the right to vote. Eve Risser’s short piece, Furakèla, could not have provided more of a contrast to the works preceding it, composed some 300 years before. Yet somehow its improvisatory, extended use of the instrument, combined with Rondeau’s captivating command, made for an interesting if unexpected conclusion to the afternoon.

Jean Rondeau © Baghir
Jean Rondeau
© Baghir

Rameau’s success came late in his life, and the operatic output for which he is best known today was preceded by fame as a musical theorist initially, and then for his harpsichord compositions. Rondeau followed a Prelude from Book 1 of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin with movements from the Suite no. 2 from Book 3. The dark and dramatic opening Prelude was perfect for Rondeau to immediately draw the audience in and concentrate our attention on the rippling, improvisatory statements, the non mesuré style (without bar lines or precise note lengths) allowing him to set out his stall. Rondeau played the Suite’s opening Allemande with delicacy in its ornamentation, and precision in the strange dislocating rhythms created by repeated notes in the central section. Following a suitably fluid Courante, the Sarabande was graceful and stately, and Rondeau’s decoration of the unusual chord progressions of the second half gave subtle added spice. The closing Gavotte begin with a simple statement on the upper manual, before a sequence of increasingly virtuosic doubles, with running scales, hand-crossing and a flourish to finish.  

Couperin’s “portraits”, “La Lugubre” and “La Favorite” come from the first of his four substantial books of Pièces de clavecin. The first, a Sarabande, is sombre and indeed somewhat lugubrious, with its rich bass line topped by florid decoration, and the second, a Chaconne, is equally serious in tone, with its repeated falling line taken through increasingly complex variation. Rondeau captured the change in style here from the Rameau, and brought out the fugal lines in the Chaconne with great precision. Rondeau moved on without a break to two pieces by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, who published just one book of Pièces de clavecin, mostly containing adaptations of some of his stage works. “La Sensible” was a little more dramatic in character from the Couperin, yet Rondeau captured the contrasts here between the opening texture and the lighter, more delicate rising arpeggios. “La Marche des Scythes”, taken from a ballet, was a frenetic, urgent finale to this part of the programme – I’d like to see anyone march at that pace! With improvisatory, cadenza-like passages and increasing virtuosic displays, the audience were fooled into premature applause, yet there was more hand-crossing and crazy rapid scales to come before a final emphatic flourish. A tall order in some ways for the Risser work that concluded the programme to follow this.

In Petroc Trelawny’s brief onstage interview with Rondeau and Risser, Risser explained that the title of her piece, Furakèla, is a West African word meaning “caregivers”, and she views Rondeau as taking care of people through his music. She did however confess somewhat refreshingly that the title didn’t have a great deal to do with the actual composition, but that she had to supply the BBC with a title at an early stage! Risser also explained that the composition process was highly collaborative, and the work was created very much with Rondeau’s playing (which she describes as shamanic) in mind. Little is written down, and Risser used oral transmission and diagrammatic representation, as well as recordings of her own improvisations to communicate her intentions. A lot to pack into just over five minutes, the piece began with tiny, metallic high notes, slowly increasing in frequency and intensity, moving down the keyboard. This gradually moved into more chordal textures, and complexity of rhythms, building to Rondeau almost hammering the extremes of the keyboard with flat palms. With a theatrical gesture, Rondeau then collapsed onto the keyboard with the whole of his forearm, then raised and gradually depressed it again onto the keyboard. A simple chord with repeated figuration led to a bell-like conclusion on the top manual. For such a short work, Risser and Rondeau managed here to create a fascinating collection of effects, and in fact this proved to be a striking end to a highly impressive recital.