The Palace of Versailles, the royal residence of Louis XIV for much of his long reign, was the headquarters of the French Baroque. The operas, ballets, and incidental music of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87) were particularly popular at court. Following Louis’ death in 1715, music declined in popularity on account of all the political maneuvering taking place, but was revived under Marie Antoinette—until her unhappy end. After the Revolution, the Baroque style fell deeply out of fashion, even in France, though a few performers kept representative works alive. In recent years, however, there has been increased interest in the period, spurred perhaps by our overexposure to other parts of the classical repertoire.
The Philharmonie de Paris, the performing arts complex in the nineteenth arrondissement, recently hosted a “Week-end Versailles rêvé” (“Versailles Dream Weekend”) featuring performances of works from the French Baroque, as well as some of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century pieces connected to Versailles, by a number of first-rate artists. The recitals by the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon were a case in point—on Saturday, we heard works exclusively from the French Baroque, while on Sunday his program featured works from the period along with pieces by Grieg, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, Jean Françaix, and Franz Liszt.
Mr. Tharaud’s Saturday evening program offered several relatively obscure works by Lully, Francois Couperin (1668–1733), and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), as well as other pieces—by Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (1703–55), Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629–91), and Jacques Duphly (1715–89)—in full shadow. Originally written for the clavecin (harpsichord) and its plucked and burred overtones, each piece was wonderfully clear as translated by Mr. Tharaud on the hall’s concert grand piano.
Couperin wrote twenty-seven ordres (suites) grouped into the four books of his Pièces de Clavecin. Mr. Tharaud played “La Logivière” (from Ordre No. 1), a technical delight that featured many degrees of pianissimo (something impossible on a harpsichord); the haunting “Les Barricades mystérieuses”(from Ordre No. 6); a ghostly “Les Ombres errantes” (from Ordre No. 25); and a charmingly dancy “Le Tic-toc-choc” (from Ordre No. 18) to end the section. Royer’s “La Marche des Scythes”—really more of a “march fantasy” as it develops—had a wonderfully modern sound, while the spectacular Variations sur les Folies d’Espagne of d’Anglebert concluded the first half.
Rameau’s chattering “Le Rappel des oiseaux” (from the Suite in E Minor—better known to pianophiles through Leopold Godowsky’s setting of its last-movement “Tambourin”) was a feast of ornamentation with trill following upon trill, all perfectly spaced and articulated, while Duphly’s “La Pothoüin” was a tiny suite in itself, spanning a variety of moods and colors. The program ended with Rameau’s Gavotte et doubles, another set of variations that the audience, whose members had been unsuccessfully hushing one another throughout, rewarded with huge applause. As a surprise encore, the soprano Sabine Devieilhe joined Mr. Tharaud for an aria from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. On the Sunday program, there was a similar surprise, visually very amusing, when, during Françaix’s suite for piano Si Versailles m’etait conté, Mr. Tharaud’s page-turner sat down, nudged the pianist to the right, and accompanied him quatre-mains in two of the movements.
Playing works written for one instrument on another has its risks, but Mr. Tharaud elegantly avoided them by creating, in effect, a parallel world where the voicing and tonal color of the piano replaced the lush monochromatic texture of the harpsichord. The audience’s rapt silence during the slower passages in the Duphly and Rameau, when it hung on every phrase, was marvelous to behold.