Gradus ad Parnassum

Gradus ad Parnassum

Rigid rules are never likely to constrain Jean Rondeau. The French harpsichordist’s latest recording subverts conventional notions of right and wrong, authenticity, and imitation. Gradus ad Parnassum is mostly built from transcriptions of pieces conceived for piano or at least for the modern concert grand’s forebear, the fortepiano. While his album’s title speaks of the search for ultimate knowledge—the diligent student’s “steps to Parnassus”—its contents reflect the experimental, often elusive nature of pieces originally conceived as keyboard or composition exercises. “This quest, this path, this journey is like a metaphor for music which can never be fully understood,” Rondeau tells Apple Music. “The music is still a mystery for me. It’s like in philosophy: Once you think you’ve reached the truth, you’re no longer in the philosophical process. It’s the same with music. When you think you know what it is and what it means and decide that’s how to play it, you’re no longer in the musical process. For me, music is always a movement. There’s never only one way to play a piece.” Jean Rondeau’s recital frames a dozen works by Fux, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, and Debussy with two contrapuntal keyboard compositions attributed to Palestrina. “It’s not a question of piano repertoire or harpsichord repertoire,” he says. “It’s not that simple. It’s not that linear. It’s more complex. And it’s more interesting too. Music is always saying that there are more questions; the more you dig into the music, the more questions you find.” His album’s overarching theme stems from a landmark work of music theory, Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. Its Latin first edition, published in Vienna in 1725, found a home in J.S. Bach’s library, while its German translation helped generations of composers—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Clementi among them—learn how to write advanced counterpoint. Rondeau’s program connects diverse music from five centuries by playing with the idea of a ceaseless dialogue between teacher and student. “I tried to take pieces which could work in terms of expressivity on the harpsichord, so it didn’t really feel like I was playing transcriptions of piano works. I was just playing the music.” Rondeau’s use of the word ‘just’ downplays his virtuosity and the apparent ease with which he makes works like Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 31 and Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner sound like they were written for harpsichord. “There’s a strong link to keyboard exercises in this album, and there’s also the matter of influences from one musical language to another,” notes Rondeau. Haydn, he explains, tailored the established idioms of harpsichord music to suit the new and evolving pianoforte in his Piano Sonata No. 31. And Debussy was gently mocking Muzio Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, 100 exercises that have haunted the dreams of piano students ever since their publication two centuries ago. Rondeau’s pick of two little-known Beethoven preludes, one an early work in C major probably dating from the composer’s late teens, the other written around 1803, charts a line between the labor of a gifted student, clearly influenced by the preludes of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and that of a mature master of his craft. “You can feel that the Prelude, Op. 39 No. 2, which goes through all 12 major keys, is like an exercise you’d do as a teenager.” Beethoven’s later Prelude in F minor, he adds, is much closer in style to the music of Bach than Bach’s music is to that of his close contemporary Jean-Philippe Rameau. “I don’t see music from the past on a chronological line,” concludes Rondeau. “That’s why I’m so excited to do a program like Gradus with composers from very different periods of time. But that doesn’t mean they’re not close in so many other ways.”

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