There have be only a handful of Rameau collections re-worked for the piano. Of these, Marcelle Meyer's was the pioneer effort, and while fluid and elegant it does not stray far from the original conception for harpsichord. It's rhythms are regular, the trilling consistent and ornamental, the light touch idiomatically French. Robert Casadesus's recordings are also light in touch, but with more pedal creating a pastel of sound. (His "Le Rappel des Oiseaux" is ridiculously fast-- the piece has always been a virtuoso miniature going back to Edouard Risler in the earliest days of recording.) Other great pianists have tackled Rameau on the instrument with a piece here and there, including Wild (marchlike Lisztian swagger everywhere), Gilels (just as much technique, not so much bombast) and Cziffra (the iconoclast treats his Rameau quite respectfully, almost as a planned paradox). After Meyer's forties' recordings you had to wait many decades for really sizable collections to be recorded by anyone. I have not heard Constantin Lifschitz's live recording, but Mordechai Shehori's contains both impeccable playing and the carefully balanced dynamics. Then, there is Tzimon Barto, and this, his amazing, perhaps landmark recording.
It is special in so many ways; for those new to classical music or to the casual listener, these pieces will certainly blend into the surroundings and enrich it. Apparently, from the Chardin still-life on the front cover of the CD and the simple metaphor of its title, that was one intent of the Ondine collection. Yet while the recording creates a rich aural landscape and can be appreciated as many past transcriptions of Rameau melodies have when played by a variety of instruments and ensembles, it's clear that that was not the intention of Tzimon Barto. In fact, for any listener to approach on such a casual level this transference and actual transcendence of Rameau's harpsichord pieces is to give both the composer and his interpreter a two-dimensional hearing that would be devastating in its lack of perception. In fact, even for the untrained ear, I believe that kind of approach will be impossible. They will not be able to stop at merely appreciating the cursory beauty of Barto's piano on tunes that have heretofore been adapted only for their surface lustre.The Barto recording goes much, much deeper, and whether one is immediately aware or not, he will travel with it into that next, extraordinary dimension.
Rameau's keyboard music has always lent itself to "programming" via the occasional sound effects (tied just too ineffably to the titles of some pieces) and of course, the attractive, even gorgeous melodies. Interpretations on other instruments have usually opted to "propel" this music, partly because as written for harpsichord, lines must be strung together in a quick. momentum-laden pattern that comes from the lack of legato and percussive stops inherent in the construction of the parent instrument. But this does not have to be the way on the piano, and one might surmise that if the "romantic" Rameau had had his druthers, he'd have created legato lines and taken full advantage of capabilities of the as-yet-uninvented instrument, perhaps even more than Bach would have. Barto sees this; and after much study, on this recording, he acts.
Barto is more concerned with harmonic underpinnings than his colleagues, and with the exception of Shehori and Gilels who also seem to have been working along these lines, raises the left hand and its harmonics in line with the melodies of the right, in many instances superseding the melodies and creating the aforementioned "third dimension" in this music. Having always been blessed with one of the best left hands in modern pianism, Barto creates amazing levels of color in the music, and often the left and right hand are in a dialogue synonymous with operatic duets. As a master composer of opera, Rameau would have appreciated the aria-like architecture Barto creates in these pieces, and to having his lines not just played, but sung. Further, the pianist isolates tone colorations within the harmonies that no other pianist has ever pulled from this music. In some pieces it seems as if Barto picks out some speckled stone and with a hammer, taps it, and out comes flashes of boreal light Rameau saw himself as he was committing these pieces to paper. But does Barto go too far? This is subjective of course, but here are some examples of why I say he hasn't, and why the results are so spectacular.
Early on in the "Prelude" and the first "Allemande, "it's clear Barto has his own (and he is sure, Rameau's) sound world in mind. He has read Rameau's writings extensively, and spent countless hours not only with his Livres for harpsichord, but with Rameau's many operas. The rhythms he finds are held, varied, and the dynamics (an impossibility on the harpsichord) are plumbed in multiples of ten, often changing even within a measure; it all seems to follow an archetypal romantic's changing mood, or to be more physical, to follow living breath. Now about this time, Baroque "experts" out there might be choking on a scone, but so be it. You get the idea in this closely miked recording that Barto, the exchange of air audible, is channeling Rameau, assuming the aspect of his spirit that was limited only by the vagaries time, place, and available instrument.
Barto is not alone in allowing the "romantic" side of Rameau to come to the fore. There are some lines of Casadesus' "Gavotte" that sound like Schumann to me, and in his own portraiture, though much deeper, Barto follows suit. For those who really like program music, yes, Barto's birds in "Le Rappel des Oiseaux" really sound like birds, and with his rhythmic divergences sound more like birds than anyone else's save Gilels, who differs with Barto here only in that his left hand accents are heavier. (Actually these pieces when played on a metallic-sounding harpsischord or by any of the early virtuosos of piano (i.e. played too fast), acquit themselves more like the final attack of Alfred Hitchcock's Birds than anything remotely pastoral or pleasant!) But for sheer musicality within this well-known piece, Barto and Gilels share ownership hands down.
The "Musette en Rondeau," where the feel of a pipes-like-drone emanates from Barto's left hand and frames the melody, sounds nothing like most earlier renditions. Shehori alone is with him on this; the music, so pretty on the surface, now becomes fathomless. Barto distinguishes himself from Shehori in his use of ritards in "Tambourin"--rather than ornament the piece, Barto de-ornaments with space, stripping off the courtly glaze to reach a folksong pentimento beneath.
In "Les Niais de Sologne," which for me is one of the great miniatures in all of classical music (and should be an encore staple of the literature) Barto turns "program music" on its ear. These acrobats play for keeps, and their dance rhythms are provocative, daring, even comedic. The last note of this piece as executed by Barto is the most apropos (and funniest) ending I've heard since Horowitz finished off Moszkowski's"Etincelles." Just perfect.
And then there is "Les Soupirs." It is here that Barto's detractors will no doubt feast as Barto's intent is to parse the overtones of this piece in as cogent an assaying of the power of harmony and pathos as you will find in Rameau. Barto draws a parallel to the slow movements of Bruckner, and a visit to his symphonies grants one this understanding. The music is not driven, it hovers, like mist on grass, like despair on the lost soul. Barto uncovers colors here no one would have otherwise attempted, and in fact, no other version of "Soupirs" in any way mirrors. This is the Barto who took Schumann's Kriesleriana to over forty minutes, and while the success of that treatment can be debated against the likes of Hofmann's or even the deliberate Horowitz, in "Soupirs," no comparison is possible. You must take this, Barto's transcendent leap of heart and mind on its own merits, or leave it alone. For me, when I want to think, perhaps cry, then hope, I would think of the Bruckner allusions, of Mahler's Adiagetto from Symphony No. 5, Chopins B-flat minor Nocturne, several preludes of Bach, or this.
The long "Allemande" from the Nouvelle Suites is another sure-fire concert item for any incisive pianist to master, as Barto already has. (Likewise the Gavotte and Six Doubles that closes the collection. Barto is selective with his rubato there and elsewhere, not afraid to use it when necessary, but also not afraid to put it away.) It is my hope that this CD will be heard by enough people so that both audience and artist revisits Rameau, as I did with this recording. By all means, buy the Meyer versions of these pieces as you can, and definitely the Shehori, because you will delight in the differences extant. That capacity of contrast can shed a welcome light on the actual depth of these pieces, and demonstrate that there is room for broad intellectual and emotional interpretation of this master, not the mere "adaptation" of Rameau to new instruments, whether it be a string trio or Bob James' electric piano.
As Horowitz opened up the world to Scarlatti on the Steinway and Clementi to everyone, so I think can this collection of Tzimon Barto point the way toward full understanding and illumination of an all-too-neglected keyboard composer, one unjustly confined to the Baroque salon, and also to a daring interpreter so often brilliant in his risks, regardless of the period.