Ensemble Masques

Rameau: Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts

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Rameau's puzzlingly titled Pièces de clavecin en concerts are in a genre unto themselves. Written for harpsichord with accompanying instruments (several configurations of strings or flute are possible), they perhaps represented a grudging concession by the great French master to the rising vogue for Italian music; he was willing to write for strings and keyboard, but not to go so far as writing trio sonatas, and he grouped his little character pieces into sets of three or four that roughly corresponded to the movements of an Italian sonata. By the standards of Rameau, who could be as fearsomely intellectual as Bach when the mood struck him, these are light works. In their extramusical references, however, these works are completely French, with many of the individual movements serving as descriptions in music of individuals in Rameau's circle. It's not always known who they were; nor is the referential framework always clear at a distance of almost three centuries. The title of the movement "La Coulicam" (track 8), for example, was long thought to be a pun on a term meaning cuckolded husband, but recent research has shown that it refers instead to a novel about a Persian king named Kulai Khan. In many other cases, however, there is no doubt about the artists, patrons, and musicians (even Rameau himself) who are represented. The booklet notes (in French and English) by François Filiatrault are exemplary in their way of bringing this culturally fertile milieu to life. Better still are the performances themselves, by the Montreal-based historical-performance group Ensemble Masques: breezy, conversational, ingenious. And, for an added bonus, you get a priceless set of French caricatures of the period on the cover of the album. A fabulous outing from ATMA's ongoing collection of releases showcasing the musicians of Montreal's early music scene, and one of the very best of these.

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