Jean Rondeau: A Harpsichord Magician at the Boston Early Music Festival

Nelida Nassar   04.19.2018

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The Boston Early Music Festival continues to be in the vanguard of the early music scene. Their latest discovery is the French-born harpsichord virtuoso Jean Rondeau, whose sold-out concerts have sparked public enthusiasm across the world. In addition to being a classical musician, this abundantly talented 27-year old also does jazz improvisation on the piano. He is giving a solo recital Friday evening at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, repeating the same program he offered Thursday evening at the Morgan Library in New York.

Rondeau will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” BWV 988 (an aria, a set of 30 diversified variations ranging from French overture to canon and from dances to fugues and an aria da capo). The piece, named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been its first performer, is considered one of the finest pieces of the Baroque keyboard repertory. Rondeau’s passion and energy are well suited to this spectacular composition.

Rondeau is eccentric. Young and with a (carefully) ruffled and unkempt, rascally demeanor, his look is far different from what one expects of a harpsichordist. He is often compared to the American Scott Ross who was also a sort of eccentric bad boy of the harpsichord. And, like Ross, Rondeau plays usually without a score, a practice which once seemed almost suspicious, or even to be a kind of  “stupid contest” with those who liked to show that they read facsimiles of old scores. When performing at the keyboard he engages his whole body but never indulges in manic displays of emotion.

Baroque music reserves a place for improvisation, something Rondeau understood very early on, when he fell in love with the harpsichord after hearing it on the radio at the age of five or six. “I was immediately seduced by the sound of this instrument. I did not know who was playing, what was played. I had a slightly sensual, instinctive reaction. I told my parents that I wanted to do this, without even knowing what a harpsichord looked like.” Just imagine the child’s curiosity, ready to discover this instrument which requires such a light touch and is altogether very delicate to handle. “What I like about the sound of the harpsichord is that it rarely leaves you indifferent. Either you worship it, fall in love, or you are put off by it.”

Rondeau enjoys improvising on a theme, shaping it, giving it a thousand faces. He believes that in playing music, whether written or improvised, one must keep in mind that “A piece, an interpretation, is something of the present, of the living, with all that the living can present, painful as well as joyous. You have to know how to hear this, to listen to that; for me it does not make sense to try to play well. We must simply try to be as honest as possible.” In other words, one should forge an honest relationship between oneself, the music and the public.

This taste for risk, this way of exposing oneself to danger (or indulging oneself?), is heard in his performance of the “Goldberg Variations.” His harpsichord is like a confidant who presents a mirror to the troubles of the soul. As an alchemist eager for experimentation, he savors harmonic friction and cultivates a very elastic phrasing, allowing both gentle caresses and ardor. While a nuanced and supple lyricism is dominant throughout, Rondeau can be powerfully virtuosic when the music calls for it, as in variations 14 and 29, as well as occasionally mercurial. He always favors the melodic and singing quality of the music over the pristine geometry of Bach’s counterpoint, as evidenced in his sparing use of the pedal, virtual  absence of  hard edges and many dynamic shades of grey. The theater of illusion dominates this world, which is somehow almost more real than nature. When he performs, he is in a permanent state of tension. “Music consists of tensions, resolutions; you have to know how to touch it, how to kiss it,” and he certainly does that brilliantly. The audience was wide awake and in complete rapture.

Lecture before the concert at 7.00 p.m.
Concert at 8.00 p/m/