Tzimon Barto

A Basket of Wild Strawberries: A Selection of Keyboard Works by Jean-Philippe Rameau

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And now for something completely different. This is an age of historically authentic performances of Baroque music, and even those who perform Baroque keyboard works on the piano adopt terraced dynamics and other aspects of a harpsichord's sound. But here comes Florida-born pianist Tzimon Barto, recording in Finland for a Finnish label, saying in the interview that serves as booklet notes for this Rameau disc that "I pride myself on having 36 dynamic colors between ppp and fff." Playing short pieces from four different books of harpsichord selections by Rameau, he makes the staggering assertion that "I never want any two notes in a phrase to sound alike."

As you might imagine, Rameau under Barto's fingers ends up sounding a bit like Chopin. Or composers from even later -- Barto says that Rameau was "already an Impressionist" and also name-checks Bruckner in explaining his mystical reading of "Les soupirs" from the "Suite in D" of the Pièces de clavecin of 1724. To pull off a performance that so flagrantly disregards a work's original sound world is a tall order, but the amazing thing is that Barto's playing is more than listenable. He divides the pieces, he says, into those that take vocal melody as a model (these get lots of vibrato) and those based on dances. One may object that keyboard music was an entirely independent category for Rameau, but Barto's division makes sense and is elaborated into finer distinctions that he treats consistently and sensitively.

Another point in Barto's favor is that Rameau is a Baroque composer unusually well-suited to this kind of treatment. If Barto had applied his expressive will to the precision-etched portraits that are the soul of François Couperin's music, the listener might well feel that he was merely getting in the way. With Rameau, even if the composer's intellectual side gets lost here, there is always a self-conscious complexity and an intentionally mysterious suggestion of something lurking beyond the boundaries of the music -- Barto seems to wander, in a way, into realms that Rameau himself has suggested. Is this a valid approach to Rameau? Sample and decide for yourself, but there's just a chance that this American iconoclast might have started a trend.

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