In the oldest quarter of Utrecht sat two harpsichords nestled side-by-side in a dimly lit corner of the Geertekerk. It was perhaps an unassuming sight from afar, yet as Skip Sempé and Pierre Hantaï entered the space, the atmosphere suddenly perked up the attentions of unsuspecting ears. Known worldwide for their vast knowledge of the French Baroque, these two master interpreters took a bow with just the right combination of reverence and gallantry required of such repertoire.

Skip Sempé
Skip Sempé

Offering a program entirely composed of works from one of the giants of this era, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), it is admittedly a rather strange sight to see not one but two harpsichords on the stage. However, the clever conception and arrangement of this particular program marked the very artistry present in the room. By taking pieces from some of Rameau’s theatrical operas and chamber music for flute and violin, Sempé and Hantaï selected a program which offered just as much variety on two harpsichords as it well could have done with an entire crew of violins, flutes, basses, percussion and singers.

Drawing on the knowledge and common practice of keyboardists creating orchestral “reductions”, the stream of selections played like a well (historically-)informed “greatest hits” collection. Constantly weaving in and out of the exotic elements of Rameau’s operas such as Les Indes Galantes, Dardanus and Platée, we can hear the characteristic representations of the world during the days of French colonialism. With titles like “Air pour les polonais”, “Les esclaves africains” and “Les Incas du Pérou” we are carried back to a time of smaller minds and harsher and less tactful mannerisms of expression. Despite the rather reductive mentality, the music itself offers a certain energy, as the two instruments flourish to and fro creating a whimsical, even fantastical, world totally apart from our own.

The juxtaposition of “exotic” elements with character pieces, named after those whom Rameau worked alongside at the court of Louis XIV, made for an exciting and varied auditory adventure. Such a demanding program is already stupefying for the trained, or at least patient, ear. Though satisfying for most, I can imagine an outside ear finding a lack of variety due simply to the nature of the instrumentation. It truly is a test to delve into the colors and sonority which these beautiful instruments, based on models from 18th-century France and Germany by the maker Jan Kalsbeek, can produce. And under the trickling and delicate execution of Sempé and Hantaï, there can be no greater interpretation.

In such an exposed and intimate performance, one feels a certain kinship with the musical characters of the two soloists on stage. The physiognomy and presence of the two physically at their respective instruments offered a sneak peek inside the sound being produced. Sempé’s calm and rather dignified, though to my estimation always humble, stance at the instrument stood in contrast to Hantaï’s bubbling, rather nervous and excited, colorization. As the latter would cascade with a whimsy only the French could muster, Sempé countered the musical remark with something equally as beautiful and refined.

Challenged and intoxicated by the sound of two harpsichords, the pure enjoyment of finding varying sound colors and shapes, not to mention a wealth of characteristics only a keyboard instrument can offer, I was left with a sense of simplicity and subtlety. The execution from Hantaï and Sempé brought us back in time for a truly beautiful night of music.

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