Harpsichord Recital: Jean Rondeau
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2022-04-10
2022-04-25 — Original posting
Jean Rondeau spielt Bachs Goldberg-Variationen: eine überwältigende Erfahrung! — Zusammenfassung
Ein Extrakonzert in der ausverkauften Kirche St.Peter in Zürich: der französische Cembalist Jean Rondeau (*1991) interpretierte die “Aria mit 30 Veränderungen”, BWV 988, bekannt unter dem Namen “Goldberg-Variationen” von Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Rondeau entpuppte sich als Musiker, der nicht mit Virtuosität auftrumpft (obwohl er selbige durchaus beherrscht), sondern sich voll und ganz in den Dienst der Musik stellt. Er wählt seine Tempi mit Bedacht, artikuliert mît ausnehmender Sorgfalt, verziert gekonnt und einfühlsam.
Die Höhepunkte seiner Interpretation fanden sich denn auch nicht in den virtuosen Segmenten, sondern in den langsamen, reflektierenden Variationen. Er spielte alle Wiederholungen, ohne nennenswerte Pausen, und trotz langsamer Tempi ließ die Spannung über nahezu 100 Minuten nie nach. Der Cembalist hielt die zahlreiche Zuhörerschaft gänzlich im Bann. Eine überwältigende Konzerterfahrung, die an Intensität, Reichtum und Tiefe kaum zu übertreffen ist.
Jean Rondeau joue les Variations Goldberg de J.S. Bach: une expérience bouleversante! — Résumé
Un concert spécial dans l’église Saint-Pierre de Zurich: le claveciniste français Jean Rondeau (*1991) a interprété les Variations Goldberg, BWV 988 de Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Rondeau s’est montré comme un musicien qui ne fait pas étalage de sa virtuosité (bien qu’il la maîtrise parfaitement), mais qui se met entièrement au service de la musique. Il choisit ses tempos avec soin, articule avec un soin exceptionnel, orne avec habileté et sensibilité.
Les points culminants de son interprétation ne se trouvaient pas dans les segments virtuoses, mais dans les variations lentes et réfléchies. Il a joué toutes les reprises, sans pauses notables, et malgré des tempos lents, il a réussi à maintenir la tension pendant près de 100 minutes, captivant totalement le nombreux public. Une expérience de concert époustouflante, difficile à surpasser en termes d’intensité, de richesse et de profondeur.
Table of Contents
- Performance & Review
- Goldberg Variations
- 1st Variation (a 1 Clav.)
- 2nd Variation (a 1 Clav.)
- 3rd Variation (Canone all’ Unisono, a 1 Clav.)
- 4th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
- 5th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
- 6th Variation (Canone alla Seconda, a 1 Clav.)
- 7th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav., al tempo di Giga)
- 8th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 9th Variation (Canone alla Terza, a 1 Clav.)
- 10th Variation (Fughetta, a 1 Clav.)
- 11th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 12th Variation (Canone alla Quarta)
- 13th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 14th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 15th Variation (Canone alla Quinta, in moto contrario, a 1 Clav., Andante)
- 16th Variation (Ouverture, a 1 Clav.)
- 17th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 18th Variatio (Canone alla Sesta, a 1 Clav.)
- 19th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
- 20th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 21st Variation (Canone alla Settima)
- 22nd Variation (a 1 Clav., Alla breve)
- 23rd Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 24th Variation (Canone all’ Ottava, a 1 Clav.)
- 25th Variation (a 2 Clav., Adagio)
- 26th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 27th Variation (Canone alla Nona, a 1 Clav.)
- 28th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
- 29th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
- 30th Variation (Quodlibet, a 1 Clav.)
- Aria da Capo e Fine
- The CD to the Concert
|Venue, Date & Time||Kirche St.Peter in Zurich, 2022-04-10 17:00h|
|Series / Title||Extrakonzert in der Kirche St. Peter Zürich|
|Organizer||Hochuli Konzert AG|
|Reviews from related events||Concerts organized by Hochuli Konzert AG|
Concerts at Kirche St.Peter, Zurich
The French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau (*1991, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Paris. At age 6, he heard the sound of a harpsichord on the radio. He instantly declared that he wanted to “produce that sound”. For 10 years, he had lessons with Blandine Verlet (1942 – 2018) before joining the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse (CNSMD, Paris Conservatory) in Paris. There, his harpsichord teachers were Olivier Baumont (*1960), Blandine Rannou (*1966), and Kenneth Weiss (*1963).
2012 – 2015, Jean Rondeau won several prestigious prizes in France and Belgium. This has launched his international career, assisted by his presence on social media, such as YouTube. See his 2014 iconic video featuring Bach’s Chaconne for an example.
Rondeau is also playing the piano, he has composed film music, and he founded the baroque ensemble Nevermind. He is equally interested in contemporary music and founded the jazz quartet Note Forget. See the artist’s biography for full detail.
2014, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Erato. His discography now comprises 10 recordings, among them 6 solo recordings, three with his ensemble Nevermind, and a duo CD with the lutenist Thomas Dunford (*1988).
Rondeau’s Goldberg Tour 2022
This year, Jean Rondeau is traveling throughout Europe with his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which now is also part of his discography. See below for details. The tour features around 30 concerts in Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Austria, Spain, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the Czech Republic. The tour plan included concerts in Yekaterinburg and Moscow in late March. These were rightfully canceled due to Russia’s (i.e., Putin’s) invasion in Ukraine.
Jean Rondeau is touring with his own crew, and with a harpsichord that Jukka Ollikka (Prague) built in 2018. It is a copy of an historical instrument by Michael Mietke (c.1656/1671 – 1719). Only three instruments by this maker survived: one single-keyboard instrument in a museum in Sweden. Another single-keyboard (“white”) instrument now is in the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin.
The instrument played by Jean Rondeau is a copy of a two-manual (“black”) harpsichord by Mietke, now also located at Schloss Charlottenburg. It is likely, or at least possible, that Johann Sebastian Bach played on the “black” two-manual instrument when he visited Berlin ini 1719. Both instruments at Schloss Charlottenburg have been copied by numerous harpsichord makers.
The instrument features an 8′ stop (lower keyboard), 8′ and 4′ stops (upper keyboard), and, of course, the option to couple the two manuals. The instrument’s range is 5 octaves (F, – F’’’ / F1 – F6). The photos below are snapshots taken after the concert:
I have posted information and thoughts on the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) in earlier posts about concert performances of Bach’s BWV 988. These include performances of the original version on modern piano (2016-02-26), as well as transcriptions for string trio (2016-12-13), and for two pianos (2015-11-24). In one of these concert reviews (2016-02-26), I have given detailed information on the structure of the composition, which I’m therefore not going to repeat here.
I expected this concert to be popular. However, I was still pleasantly surprised when I realized that the concert was sold out, the nave of the church packed! I had the privilege of a seat on the organ balcony, with excellent view onto the artist. Sure, from the point-of-view of acoustics, a seat closer to the instrument would have been preferable. However, I was confident that the instrument would project well enough also into the rear of the church. And I had a chance of taking unobstructed photos.
Performance & Review
Jean Rondeau entered the podium with the score. However, the instrument was not fitted with a stand. Rondeau placed the score on the floor to his left, open. However, he never turned a page. I did not inspect that open score in detail after the concert. I only noted some handwritten notes on the open pages. So, either these notes served as “cheat sheet”, or (more likely), the score served as backup for the case of a memory lapse. In fact, as far as I could see, Jean Rondeau rarely ever looked at the score (if at all). I assume that he performed the entire concert by heart, and there was no noticeable memory lapse. Ever. Amazing!
Zurich’s St.Peter church is not comparable to a big concert hall. Still, for a single harpsichord, it’s a respectable venue. And, if it is filled as in this concert, the audience dampens the reverberation and hence potentially defeats some of the acoustic support. Plus, people initially aren’t quite silent, let alone focused on the subtle sonorities of a harpsichord.
Jean Rondeau sat down at the harpsichord, rested his hands on his lap—and waited. Once the audience was reasonably silent, he reached into the keyboard, and… No, not the G / G‘‘ that starts the Aria! Rather he started off with a warm, deep G in the bass, followed by an ascending, figure—and building / improvising a beautiful “preamble”. He went through richly ornamented modulations, and after a first cadence, started a second part at a higher pitch, in a new key. I would not even say it was “Bach style”. It rather reminded of Bach’s French contemporaries, such as François Couperin (1668 – 1733). It was beautiful, beautiful, for sure!
And sure enough: after some 2 minutes, Jean Rondeau not only achieved absolute silence, but he also had everybody’s full attention. I can’t think of a better way to start such a long recital!
One might think of this as “just the theme”, “just the raw material” for the variations. However, this is not only Bach’s own, artful Aria (as the program notes stated, the theme is actually not the melody, but the 32-bar bass line). Bach also carefully and diligently ornamented the melody line. With this, the Aria receives high significance and attention, and its interpretation set a precedent for the entire performance. In the aftermath, my notes on the Aria indeed anticipated many aspects that I found remarkable throughout the performance:
Right from the first tones, I noted Jean Rondeau’s diligent, subtly arpeggiated articulation, whereby the right hand was slightly delayed against the left hand. In Rondeau’s hands, this sounded never even a tad exaggerated, not a “sticky feature”, but very natural. Needless to say that it wasn’t “mathematical” or exactly predictable—simply organic.
Dynamics / colors: Rondeau avoids “exotic” features, such as using the 4′ stop only, and the Mietke harpsichord does not feature a lute stop (?). Rather, Rondeau worked with the two 8′ stops, occasionally with the coupler. Here, he performed the first passes with the lower manual (8′ stop), the repeats with the slightly softer, brighter 8′ stop of the upper keyboard. That’s not revolutionary, but if offers a very subtle differentiation between first and second passes.
And the ornaments! I was in total awe about the added / subtly varied ornaments in the repeats! They were not only beautifully integrated, but absolutely natural, in-style, never ever “too much”, just simple “right”. And yet, they retained the character of improvised, spontaneous ornaments. I’m almost sure that no two performances by this artist are identical in the ornaments.
A First Reaction
This may seem totally inappropriate and premature. However, already the Aria, even just its first half, and particularly the ornamentation in the repeat, had me “pulled in” so much that I could not hold back writing “better than Leonhardt” into my notes. I should say that so far, performances by Gustav Leonhardt (1928 – 2012) usually set the benchmark for most of Bach’s harpsichord works (and other composers, too). So, to me, this is a highly remarkable observation. However, I concede that I sensed this already in some of Rondeau’s pre-release snippets from the Goldberg Variations.
What exactly is “better than Leonhardt”? That’s of course subjective and hard to pin down. In my impression, Rondeau’s playing avoided all didacticism. His interpretation is natural, never authoritarian, “ex cathedra”, i.e., “that’s the way one must do this“. Leonhardt certainly had a similar impact on me, particularly in live concerts. In comparison to older, more traditional interpretations, that impression still persists. However, time has passed by, and now, in the aftermath (facing interpretations such as Rondeau’s), I feel Leonhardt’s didactic, rigorous character in many of his interpretations. I don’t mean to belittle any of Leonhardt’s achievements. Rondeaus interpretation would not exist without Leonhardt. However, it felt as if Rondeau freed his playing from Leonhardt’s “ruling”. And he took his interpretation to a more spontaneous, more natural (higher?) level.
Just a “Theme for Variations”?
Typical, large variation sets start with a simple (folk) tune, maybe a simple theme by another composer. The “33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli”, op.120 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) are a typical example for the latter kind. The Goldberg Variations are different. Not only is the theme Bach’s own—it is a masterpiece in its own right. The composer’s diligent ornamentation of the melody underlines this. And the care and respect with which Jean Rondeau treats the Aria fully reflect the value of that composition.
1st Variation (a 1 Clav.)
After the solemn, peaceful Aria, the first variation (on the lower 8′ stop/keyboard) felt fast—though not nearly as sporty as the 1955 recording by Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982). The “fast” is relative, and Jean Rondeau’s performance was outstanding in its use of “speaking” agogics (a.k.a. Klangrede, see Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 2018), as well as in the added, “balanced” ornamentation in the repeats. The same holds true for the phrasing arches across the two halves, which the harpsichordist of course achieved through agogics and articulation alone.
2nd Variation (a 1 Clav.)
Performed on the lower 8′ stop/keyboard. In this variation, the second part modulates away from the initial G major, revealing the interesting, extra colors in intervals / chords more distant from G major (e.g., in bar #23). Clearly non-equal temperament tuning, and a pleasure to note!
3rd Variation (Canone all’ Unisono, a 1 Clav.)
Performed on the lower 8′ stop/keyboard. There was continuity in the tempo of the first three variations, all performed essentially attacca. In general, however, the tempo of these variations was “detached” from that of the Aria. This also made it clear right at the onset that achieving “tempo continuity” by striving towards a common pulse throughout the variations (as Glenn Gould tried in his 1982 recording) was not a goal that Jean Rondeau was aiming for. Quite to the contrary, actually, as we will see!
4th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
While the first three variations formed a continuous series, variation 4 set itself apart with a distinctly more reflective pace (slower than, e.g., Gustav Leonhardt). This allowed Jean Rondeau to articulate very diligently, with extra care for details and wonderful agogics—there wasn’t a single bar that wasn’t carefully shaped.
5th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
Here, the artist’s right hand (initially carrying the semiquaver line) performed on the lower 8′ stop/manual, while the left hand (initially jumping over the semiquaver line) performed on the upper (brighter) 8′ stop/keyboard. My notes have two remarks: no speed race (or aiming for virtuosity), careful (articulation and agogics).
6th Variation (Canone alla Seconda, a 1 Clav.)
The continuation in the semiquaver line (albeit here in 3/8 time, as opposed to 3/4 in the preceding variation 4) might suggest the same pace in the semiquavers. Clearly: tempo continuity is not Jean Rondeau’s goal, nor is (fast) tempo in general, let alone virtuosity. Rather, the variation stood out through its beautiful sonority (8′ + 8′ stops coupled, presumably), and (once more) the careful agogics and articulation. Even more than variation 2, this Canone alla Seconda exposed the rich colors of non-equal temperament tuning. Pianists don’t stand a chance against this!
7th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav., al tempo di Giga)
A beautiful, dancing Gigue (performed on the lower keyboard)—playful, lively, but not sporty.
8th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
A little gap indicated that Jean Rondeau did not see variation 8 as continuation of the preceding one, rather, as a contrast. The right hand performed on the upper 8′ stop/manual, the left hand on the lower (darker) 8′ stop/manual. Gentle in flow and tempo, careful articulation and agogics in every motif, painting semiquaver figures!
9th Variation (Canone alla Terza, a 1 Clav.)
On the lower keyboard, both 8′ stops coupled, considerate in the pace. In the repeats, Rondeau seemed to double the attention to detail in articulation, allowing for extra agogics and ornamentation.
10th Variation (Fughetta, a 1 Clav.)
Same registration as variation 9 (lower keyboard, both 8′ stops coupled), and attacca. In this Fughetta, Jean Rondeau performed the beginning of the theme (first two bars) staccato, the following part more legato. This helped the listener identifying the fugue theme and maintaining transparency, while at the same time helping the harmonious flow. I loved the “curly” ornamentation in the final bar!
11th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
The right hand performed on the upper (brighter) 8′ stop/manual, the left hand on the lower (darker) 8′ stop/manual. In the repeats, Rondeau swapped the hand positions—a very subtle effect!
I should add a general remark here. As spectacular as I found Jean Rondeau’s interpretation and performance—his appearance remained unspectacular, if not inconspicuous. No show, no spectacle in body language / arm movements: he remained seated in the same position for the entire duration of the recital, which lasted nearly two hours.
Rondeau did not seek eye contact with the audience, remained focused on the keyboard / the instrument. When he turned his head, it was to look into the church choir, or possibly to take a glimpse at his “cheat sheet”. In fact, many listeners probably were so focused on the music / the performance, that they barely took notice of the artist’s physical appearance!
12th Variation (Canone alla Quarta)
Careful, considerate in tempo and articulation, the beginning of either part subtly retained. Another, beautiful example for extra colors in baroque tuning!
After this canon was one of the rare instances where the artist inserted a brief, maybe 10 seconds rest (for people to cough, etc.).
13th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Rondeau had his right hand on the lower 8′ stop / keyboard, the left hand on the upper, brighter 8′ stop / manual. The tempo seemed extra considerate. Consequently, the articulation, the shaping of ornaments and motifs were extra careful and detailed. Yet, Rondeau left out the trills in bars #5 (with mordent) and #12. The moderate tempo allowed the artist to pay extra care and attention to the “hidden” melody in the right-hand demisemiquaver figures in bars #13 and #14: beautiful!
In compensation for the omitted trills (?), Rondeau added a nice, tiny, little cadenza in the last bar, prior to the repeat. And the repeat of course appeared with extra, beautiful ornaments, and the occasional, extra ritenuto.
Up to here, this was the longest variation, by far. Yet, the artist did not skip any of the repeats, never appeared to feel any trace of rush or urge. He stuck to his vision—consequent, unfettered. Endless, timeless, and a definite highlight of the recital. And in bar #19, time momentarily seemed to stop.
14th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Rondeau again swapped the hand positions from variation 13 (and again for the repeats). This felt like the first instance of virtuosity (so far). Yet, the artist remained far from executing this with machine-like precision. Where other artists spend extra effort in continuity of the rhythmic flow, Rondeau took the liberty of grouping the sequence of explicit (written-out) mordents on bars #9 – #12 into 1 + 1 + 2 bars, separating the descending sequences (it almost felt like little hiccups!). In the second part, the mordent sequences are ascending, and again, Rondeau grouped them into 1 + 1 + 2 bars
15th Variation (Canone alla Quinta, in moto contrario, a 1 Clav., Andante)
Here, Jean Rondeau did the Andante on the quavers, extra reflective, considerate, pensive, pondering, earnest. The repeat, and even more so the second part and its repeat began even distinctly slower, with an extra ritenuto. Another timeless variation! The artist seemed to have all the time in this world: pain-relieving, soothing and reassuring solace in all the violence in this world! The most intense of the variations so far, and a second highlight in this recital.
Variation 15, with its intimate, touching ending, marked the end of the first part / half. Without leaving his seat, without looking into the audience, just waiting, holding, even keeping his hands on the keys, the artist spent maybe half a minute of reflection before starting the second half.
16th Variation (Ouverture, a 1 Clav.)
A grandiose French Overture opens the second part, in which the artist exploited the full sonority of his instrument, with coupled registers. What an extreme contrast to the reflective ending of the first part! Jean Rondeau enriched the “French” double punctuations with some extra ornaments. In the repeat, he took the liberty of altering ornaments that Bach wrote in the score. A refreshing idea, as the “extras” seamlessly fit into Bach’s text.
Not surprisingly, the second, fugato part avoided rushing in its moderate flow. Of course, the performance never sounded mechanic at any moment.
17th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Left hand: upper 8′ stop / keyboard, right hand on the lower, darker 8′ stop / keyboard. Here, we were back in the subtleties, the careful differentiation and agogics. Also here, nothing could be farther from a mechanical performance: thanks to the moderate tempo, the two voices could live their individual “life”, engage in their mutual discourse. And the added ornaments in the repeats came to full bearing.
18th Variatio (Canone alla Sesta, a 1 Clav.)
Lovely, light, fluent, joyful, bright and subtle!
19th Variation (a 1 Clav.)
On the lower keyboard, with the darker 8′ stop: slender, lovely, intimate, with subtle transitions into the repeats, and into the second part.
20th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
In this variation with the crossing lines, Rondeau used the lower keyboard (darker 8′ stop) for the left hand, the brighter, lighter 8′ stop (upper keyboard) for the right hand. To the listener, this sounded intricate, if not virtuosic—yet, the natural, harmonious flow of the semiquaver triplets, and Rondeau’s care for details in articulation made this sound easy.
21st Variation (Canone alla Settima)
A short moment of reflection led into variation 21 in G minor. Earnest, in a considerate, pensive pace. It was another, excellent opportunity to enjoy the delights of the extra colors, the occasional “queer” interval, thanks to the baroque tuning.
22nd Variation (a 1 Clav., Alla breve)
Performed attacca, and despite the return to G major, this formed a seamless extension to the preceding G minor canon. A gentle, serene ending, followed by moments of a short pause indicated the transition to the artful, final part of the variations, with the technical challenges (typically) growing from one variation to the next.
The Calm, the Silence!
A this point, the performance lasted already well over an hour. Yet, it was amazing to note the calm, the silence, the constant, undivided attention in the audience. No smartphone interrupted the performance, the very few coughs all happened during the tiny pauses. I take this as indicative for the top quality of Jean Rondeau’s interpretation.
23rd Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Jean Rondeau performed the ascending and descending, parallel and contrariwise semiquaver scales with subtle (local) acceleration. And, of course, he applied subtle agogics throughout, and extra ornaments in the repeats. The two hands / voices formed a lively dialog between often contrasting characters.
This variation (as most of the performance, actually) sounded like the exact (and compelling) antithesis to Glenn Gould’s interpretations (to be honest, to any interpretation on modern piano that I know)!
24th Variation (Canone all’ Ottava, a 1 Clav.)
In the last part of the recital, with the variation getting more and more diverse, fewer of the variations appeared attacca, the short intervals between the variations became more frequent. Variation 24 deserved such a short moment of reflection: a serene, calm and beautiful canon, a 3-part invention—seemingly simple, but intricate.
25th Variation (a 2 Clav., Adagio)
Adagio, really—and taken to the extreme! Rondeau performed the right hand on the stronger 8′ stop (lower keyboard), the left-hand accompaniment (a scarce basso continuo of sorts) on the upper keyboard with the lighter 8′ stop. The tempo was unusually (not to say: extremely) slow—and it still worked beautifully! I noted “The artist has all the time in this world!“.
It was by far the slowest tempo that I have ever heard in this variation. An utterly intense mourning song, with intervals and hesitations often spanning a little infinity. Yet, it grabbed people by the neck, reached out into the listener’s heart, left people spellbound. The repeats appeared to begin even slower, the transition to the second part felt like another little infinity. The end of the second part (first pass) seemed to close, calmed down. Yet, the calming down turned into tiny hesitations, increasing the tension until it became nearly unbearable—and, sure enough: Rondeau repeated also the second part.
An almost endless, elegiac and intense lamentation—also beautiful, of course, with its indulging in chromaticism. Definitely, this Adagio was highly appropriate at this time of a cruel war in Ukraine. And the knowledge about the endless suffering in the East even intensified the experience of this interpretation. Surrounding this variation by slightly longer pauses wasn’t just appropriate, but necessary.
26th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Some artists use the continuous, rolling semiquaver line to demonstrate fluent playing and virtuosity. Jean Rondeau somehow managed to keep the semiquaver line as a kind of “continuous ornament”, while focusing on the punctuated (mostly left-hand) motifs (which actually hold the bass line, theme of the variations). The next variation followed almost attacca:
27th Variation (Canone alla Nona, a 1 Clav.)
Gently rolling semiquaver waves. Fittingly, Rondeau inserted a short rest between the two parts, highlighting that the second part isn’t just a variation of the first one, but actually works with the inverted canon theme: Bach’s high art in polyphony! The next variation followed immediately and seamlessly:
28th Variation (a 2 Clav.)
Initially moderate, but instantly accelerating to a fast, truly virtuosic tempo, the demisemiquaver motifs appearing like proper trills. Yet, Rondeau of course still applied agogics, keeping a certain elasticity in the flow.
29th Variation (a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.)
The annotation “a 1 ovvero 2 Clav.” refers to the fact that the texture suggests using two keyboards, which might be slightly easier to play. Jean Rondeau performed all of this variation on the loader keyboard, with coupling of the stops, deploying the full, grandiose sonority of the instrument. Between the alternating chords (a tremolo of sorts), the semiquaver motif cascades and waves appeared like brilliant, sparkling fireworks: what a culmination in this long, challenging performance!
30th Variation (Quodlibet, a 1 Clav.)
Jean Rondeau performed the final variations 26 – 30 attacca, i.e., with instant transitions. The Quodlibet, a combination of the original bass line with two folk tunes, forms a stark contrast against the preceding, grandiose virtuosity.
This contrast led to the one conspicuous deviation from Bach’s text. The obvious option here is, to insert a little break. Rondeau, however, wanted to carry over the momentum, performing this attacca. So, in order to make the transition more seamless, he doubled (octavated) the bass line in the left hand during the initial four bars. The effect was striking (albeit clearly unusual in the context of this composition). The transition felt natural, and after four bars, when the bass line integrates into the polyphony, the doubling stopped, and Rondeau didn’t use doubling in the second pass.
After the above transition, the interpretation revealed the tidy mood of the Quodlibet: not melancholic, nor moody, relief after such a long journey. As appropriate for the light, casual nature of the Quodlibet, Rondeau enriched the texture with arpeggiated articulation and additional harmonic “filling”, particularly in the repeats. In contrast to the bass doubling, I don’t see this as being against the notation or the character of the piece.
Aria da Capo e Fine
In the final Aria, Jean Rondeau returned to Bach’s “naked” text—for the first 16 bars. For the transition to the repeat, however, he inserted a tiny, but artful cadenza. And, of course, the repeat now appeared with rich, extra ornamentation—simply beautiful! The first pass of the second half appeared nearly “untouched”, ending in a relaxed cadence and fermata. Time stopped for a moment, while the artist seemed to reflect, re-collect his thoughts—and then, he started the final repeat, with subtle hesitations, and with minimal extra ornamentation only. The ending was like a candle emitting its last light…
Jean Rondeau kept his hands on the keyboard, after a while laid them onto his lap, keeping his eyes on the instrument. The silence in the nave was stunning: one could have heard a needle drop to the floor. It took a little eternity, almost a minute, until somebody prematurely broke the silence with applause, leading into a long, standing ovation. Impossible even to think of an encore, needless to say!
I was immensely touched by the experience of this concert—possibly the strongest impression that I ever took home from a concert.
In case my review makes you curious to hear Jean Rondeau’s Goldberg Variations: below, you find a reference to his recently released CD set (2 CDs). I do have that CD—however, so far, I have not listened to it. And I definitely did not write the review based on that recording. What I did listen to (prior to the concert) were some of the snippets (selected, individual variations) that Jean Rondeau posted in the social media. And these instantly caught my attention: I absolutely had to attend this concert!
The above review indicates how much I was touched / overwhelmed by Jean Rondeau’s performance. A concert experience is unique, and probably not entirely under the artist’s control. The applause gave me the impression that major parts of the audience shared my impressions. Jean Rondeau is an artist who doesn’t want to impress with virtuosity and perfection—he completely appeared to put himself into the service of the composer, stepping back behind the music he is performing.
My enthusiasm may make it sound as if the features I describe were unique to this artist (or this performance). I do stand behind all these comments—they truthfully describe my personal concert experience (from the distance of the rear balcony!). However, I must stress that not everybody may feel the same, and other harpsichordists may offer similar experiences.
It remains to be seen if the intensity of Jean Rondeau’s interpretation percolates through the recording on his CD set. And how this recording compares to Rondeau’s “competitors”. I do plan to do a comparison of various recordings—but this is a major undertaking and is unlikely to happen this year. In first priority, such a comparison will deal with harpsichord performances alone. Piano performances and transcriptions are in a “different universe”. I most likely will deal with those in a separate comparison.
The CD to the Concert
It is indicative that Jean Rondeau’s comments to his recording on CD don’t try making a big “splash” by bragging or elaborating on the artist’s achievements. Nor do they include lengthy musicological essays. Quite to the contrary: the only actual comment consists of blank pages with just [Silence] in the center (one full page for each of the three languages), and a page of acknowledgements for the people assisting in the production. It is an invitation to dive into this music, to indulge in the deep impression that the interpretation, i.e., Bach’s composition, creates in the listener.
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord Jonte Knif & Arno Pelto, 2006, after German models
Warner classics / Erato 0190296508110 (2 CDs, stereo, ℗ / © 2021)
Booklet: 10pp., fr/en/de (text: 1 page)
The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, for the press tickets to this concert.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt. (2018). Musik als Klangrede : Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis : Essays und Vorträge. Bärenreiter.