In the right hands, the harpsichord can be a mesmerizing instrument. Christophe Rousset, in two concerts over the weekend, took listeners on unforgettable musical journeys: through two centuries of French music for the harpsichord, through musical depictions of world cultures, through the portal of life and death.
At La Maison Francaise on Friday night, which happened to be Rousset’s birthday, the French harpsichordist began with music of the 17th century, in a concert called “In Praise of Shadows.” The shades of the giants of the French harpsichord school were headed by a stately, pensive pavane by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. The three suites that filled out the program, played without intermission, each ended with a “tombeau,” a musical tribute by one composer to another composer who has just died, like a sculpted portrait placed upon a tomb. To the dances of Johann Jakob Froberger’s 19th suite, Rousset appended Froberger’s tombeau for the lutenist Charles Fleury de Blancrocher. This cerebral piece ended with a crashing minor scale down the bass keys, a reference to Blancrocher’s death after falling down a flight of stairs, where he died in the arms of his best friend, Froberger.
Rousset played in an unequal temperament based on the pure tuning of thirds, requiring him to make adjustments to the tuning after some of the pieces, so that the thirds sounded the best in the key of the piece to come (in unequal tuning, a G-sharp can be not at all the same as an A-flat). To a suite of dances in F major by Louis Couperin, Rousset added Couperin’s tombeau to Blancrocher, played with a sense of almost mute shock, searching at times for words to express the grief. The seance-like tribute of shade to shade was brought full circle with the Suite in D by Jean-Henri d’Anglebert, which ended with a tombeau to Chambonnières.
In a Saturday afternoon concert at the Library of Congress, titled “Exoticism at the Harpsichord,” Rousset played pieces drawn from 18th-century suites by François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Pancrace Royer, many of which were evocations of exotic cultures. Highlights included the manic clucks of Rameau’s “The Hen” and excerpts from Rameau’s often baffling transcription of his own opera-ballet “Les Indes Galantes,” especially the somber and proud “Air Pour les Esclaves Africains.” Ending with some flash, Rousset played excerpts from the first book of harpsichord pieces by Pancrace Royer, including an encore of the unsettling “Le Vertigo.” Both concerts were executed with consummate musicality, intelligence and daring, a reminder that even very old music can be made to sound new.
Downey is a freelance writer.