Melancholy Grace, the new Parlophone Records album from French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, displays the young musician’s graceful touch while, as the title suggests, wrapping the listener in a cloak of sweet melancholy.
Rondeau performs works by composers of the late 16th and 17th centuries on two harpsichords. He uses a 16th century Italian virginal (a compact harpsichord) – not a replica! – for pieces on the “Lachrymae” theme and others suggesting sadness. And he plays a modern replica of an 18th-century harpsichord for pieces that express melancholy through the use of “chromatic movement” – incorporating more of the notes that fall outside the “usual” notes of the scale.
The timbral difference between the two instruments adds color to the album.
Another subtle but important element of Rondeau’s project is tuning the harpsichords in ways other than the equal temperament that has become standard in Western music over the past couple of centuries.
That provides further color and emotional range.
In equal temperament, all semitones of the octave are equidistant. This enables a composer or musician to transpose any piece into any key. Other temperaments, such as meantone, align the notes in more mathematically natural or precise wavelength proportions for a given key and its associated scales. But this restricts that instrument, at that time, to pieces in certain keys.
Don’t worry, you don’t need music theory to hear the difference. Careful listeners will be able to detect notes that sound “out of tune” to modern ears in some of these tracks. The tunings don’t jar the ear; they do give the music a somewhat exotic flavor.
But it’s Rondeau’s sensitive and emotionally charged performances that make the album truly shine. Without access to the rich harmonics and dynamic range of a modern piano, a harpsichordist who wishes to touch modern listeners must approach music with a highly expressive creative spirit, fully inhabiting the instrument’s thinner sound. Rondeau is a master of ornamentation and has a refined feel for the ebb and flow of tempo. His distinctive interpretations make these pieces, by a dozen composers, all fit comfortably together.
Some of the composers are better known (Frescobaldi, Dowland) than others. But wherever he roams – Italy, England, Holland – Rondeau makes this rather ancient music beautiful and rewarding for the 21st century.
For instance, Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) “Toccata Settima” opens the album with dizzying cascades of arpeggios, while his “Toccata Prima” in Rondeau’s hands reads almost like an improvisation.
Another example: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s (1562–1621) “Fantasia Cromatica” with its plangent theme of descending fourths has long fascinated musicologists, but it could impress heavy-metal shredders too.
Because nearly all of the music has a mournful quality (minor keys, sighing progressions) Melancholy Grace may be better listened to in stages rather than all the way through. But pay attention and you’ll hear excitement and even joy emerging, thanks in large part to Rondeau’s acute playing.
Melancholy Grace is a valuable contribution to keeping this wonderful old music reverberating into the 21st century – for listeners of all temperaments.