Harpsichord the perfect time machine

By William Dart

Christophe Rousset (born April 12, 1961) is a French harpsichordist and conductor, specializing in the performance of baroque music on period instruments.
Christophe Rousset (born April 12, 1961) is a French harpsichordist and conductor, specializing in the performance of baroque music on period instruments.

Christophe Rousset is one of the world's top harpsichordists and, next week, he and his ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, give six concerts around New Zealand thanks to Chamber Music New Zealand.

He tells me his love for the instrument goes right back to a childhood fascination with baroque aesthetics. If that sounds dauntingly precocious, he quickly brings us back to earth.

"I grew up in Aix-en-Provence, where most of the town's centre has been built in the baroque era," he explains. "So my fascination for Versailles and other 17th century architecture started early and the harpsichord was the perfect time machine for exploring that era."

Don't be put off by time machine talk; no-one's travelling in Dr Who's telephone box Tardis when Rousset's in charge. The Frenchman also puts great store on the expressive and emotional side of music hence the name of his group Les Talens Lyriques, which he founded in 1991.

An opera fanatic from youth, he wanted a name "that would reflect the vocal music at the heart in what we play," he explains.

"Lyrical to me means the ability to evoke the full expressive potential of the human voice. "In fact, I even try to 'sing' on my harpsichord," he adds, impishly.

In concert, Les Talens Lyriques will offer elegant insights into a range of lyrical French baroque music, starting with Marin Marais and ending with the great Francois Couperin.
And it's no accident that it will be a viola da gamba playing the bass lines alongside the two violins and harpsichord on stage.

"Viola da gambas were loved in France," Rousset enthuses. "Together with the lutes, they were the noble instruments of the time, with a tone of refined intimacy that was particularly French. Great composers like Couperin and Rameau insisted on them for their pieces, while cellos were mainly used in orchestral music."

Although Rousset is sought after as a conductor, in opera houses and concert halls, as well as a soloist, he enjoys the personal contacts that smaller ensembles give.

"When I play as part of Les Talens Lyriques, it's like making music without using any words, answers or provocations," he sighs. He appreciates his fellow-musicians, "because being a conductor or playing harpsichord recitals can make you feel quite lonely."

Europe is experiencing unprecedented border issues through the refugee crisis, but music has always travelled freely without a passport and, next week, we will see just how much the influence of Italian music managed to cross the Alps to France.

"Music in general comes from Italy!" Rousset says, reminding me how Louis XIV, the Sun King, brought the Italian composer Lully to Paris, to invent French opera. "Couperin was considered the Italian champion in Paris and Rameau, believe it or not, was criticised for being too Italian compared to Lully."

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose Troisieme Concert is featured next week, was a major force in his time, every bit as important as his contemporaries Bach and Handel.

"Rameau invented modern harmony," Rousset exclaims. "In orchestral music he did things that Beethoven would make use of 50 years later, bringing in bassoons, clarinets and piccolos in a new way. This composer knew the power of syncopation. In a way, that looks forward to today's jazz music."

While Rousset waxes almost patriotically on the French composer, he is also a fervent admirer of Bach, having just released a startlingly good recording of the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

He'd chosen to tackle this first book after recording the second, which was "more complex and difficult.

"The first volume is what you always studied as a child, and I had to consciously forget what I'd been taught all those years ago. I had to find my own way in the world of freedom and anarchy that it offers."

What: Les Talens Lyriques
Where & when: Academy of Performing Arts, Waikato University, Thursday at 7.30pm; Auckland Town Hall, Friday at 7.30pm

CD: J.S. Bach, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier 1 (Aparte, through Ode Records)

- NZ Herald

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