The Iranian-American harpsichordist unravels Rameau (and a good deal more).

Rameau wrote far less for the solo keyboard than, say, Couperin or JS Bach. Where do you place him in the pantheon of harpsichord composers?

Rameau may have written very little, but it’s all top-notch music. Alas, it’s not quite easy placing him within a specific pantheon. I mean, Couperin is someone whom I’d call a harpsichord composer – though, of course, he wrote in genres. He’s sort of like Chopin in that he produced his most original and heartfelt work for the keyboard. Sebastian Bach is a special case, because he seems to have mastered every genre he tried his hand at. William Byrd is probably the same, and I’d call him the father of modern keyboard music.

Rameau is a bit different. He wrote three books of harpsichord pieces which fit on just about two discs with some room left for a couple of pieces found in manuscript sources. All well and good, but then when his career as an opera composer took off Rameau seems to have more or less abandoned the harpsichord for greener pastures (which is to say that he made more money) – the one exception being the 1741 Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts which are essentially trios.

That being said, for me, Rameau is up there in my personal ‘Big Six’ of harpsichord composers along with Byrd, Frescobaldi, JS Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Couperin. Why? I guess it’s because, like Bach or Couperin (or Beethoven or Scriabin with the piano), he looks past the instrument and its specific language. In the first book he’s a French ‘claveciniste’ through and through, but with the second book of 1724 he starts to import orchestral and dramatic idioms into the two manuals of the harpsichord. And in the third book he starts to tire of it – in a good way, of course! By the end we’re hearing the full orchestra.

I studied with the great Mme. Ruzickova in Prague and I think that’s why she didn’t want to teach the last book – she used to say it wasn’t real harpsichord music. Then again she is Mrs. Bach personified, so go figure!

What special qualities do you find distinguishes his writing for harpsichord?

Rameau clearly had a formidable technique as a harpsichord player, one that matched his rather tremendous personality (as far as I can tell from the few snippets of information we have about Rameau as a human being!). But he clearly also had a gift for sensitivity that typified the French style of the Ancien Régime. Interestingly, he also seems to have derived much influence in terms of technique and style from other composers such as Scarlatti (as heard in the Trois mains in the great A Minor Suite) and Handel (as heard in the Gavotte and Variations from the same set of pieces).

A fair number of musicians play Rameau on the modern piano. Do you ever? And what do you think the harpsichord brings out that the piano, perhaps, cannot (or vice versa)?

I don’t have a piano though I’d very much like to have one when I have a bit more space at home. Truth be told, I’d probably use it to play Brahms and Schubert and Chopin more than anything else – just for fun. I would never inflict my Brahms on the public, and there are perfectly marvelous pianists out there whom I’d rather hear share their wonderful interpretations.

I must confess to finding questions of harpsichord versus piano rather tiresome, as I think there’s too much in common between good harpsichord playing and good pianism to justify any enmity between the two instruments. But I will humour it this once. Some listeners may find it surprising while listening to this album that the harpsichord is a majestic and indeed monumental instrument. To me, the harpsichord’s many registers and overtones create a wonderful impression of colours washing over this music (and of course, this is what someone like Rameau had in mind!).

On the piano I find it a bit sentimental. This isn’t because I don’t like baroque music on the piano – quite the contrary! In fact, I would much rather hear Handel’s suites, for example, on the modern piano. But in the case of Rameau and all those French composers, it just sort of sounds a bit… off. Then again, the other day I heard some Rameau played by the great Grigory Sokolov and it was mind-blowing. I would love to hear what someone like Igor Levit would do with this music, because his Bach is just fantastic.

You are one of a new generation of musicians popularising the harpsichord all over again. What drew you to it, and what would you say to a young player thinking about having a go?

That’s very kind of you to say. I’m not a musician, I’m just a player of other people’s music – a real musician is a composer (I compose a bit at home and it’s just dreadful stuff). Anyhow, I heard the harpsichord on a cassette when I was maybe eight or nine, and I thought: this instrument is the best medium for me to say what I want to say. Period. It was a matter of simply falling in love with the sound, and I guess I continue not only because of that love but because it’s a wonderful journey coaxing the best out of an instrument which a lot of people just simply don’t ‘get.’

It’s all well and good for the harpsichord to be popularised as long as it’s for the right reasons. If I ever go down the route of playing the part of a clown to get social media ‘likes’ or just repeat the same unadventurous programming just to pocket repeated recital cheques, then I should probably just quit and do something unrelated to music. I’m doing this because I’d like to leave the instrument different from what it was like when I found it. That would be a worthwhile life project.

If a young player is thinking about the harpsichord I’d say: make sure you get a good and solid keyboard technique before you tackle what will be an inordinately finicky and sensitive instrument! Well, maybe I’m being a bit of a bad boy here and scaring them off! No, really, what I would say is this: be dogged, be obsessed, and always believe that the instrument can do anything. Work like mad and listen to every sort of genre of music to see what sounds you can make with the harpsichord. And learn to tune quickly, because you’ll be doing a lot of it.

You’ve recorded Rameau, Corelli and CPE Bach lately. What would you like to record next, and is there a less well-known harpsichord composer who you’d like to champion?

Well, I should quite like to point out that my 2014 album for Wigmore Live also included music by Byrd and Ligeti. The former is lesser-known only by case of tragedy, because to me he’s a god-like figure. And Ligeti, while widely respected, might not be so renowned for his music for the harpsichord. That was an endeavour well worth exploring. Anyhow, now that I’ve signed with Deutsche Grammophon, we actually just recorded our first album and it’s being released in early May. There’s the 1980 concerto by Henryk Gorecki, a harpsichord version of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, and the great D Minor concerto by JS Bach. I’ve also released my second album with the great Michala Petri, of modern British and Danish composers for our instrument. Next I should like to either record some Scarlatti from a newly-discovered manuscript, and maybe that wonderful concerto by Manuel de Falla. Or perhaps… well, I can’t say. I wish there were ten days in the week so I could do absolutely everything I dream about. Do you know that I absolutely worship Frescobaldi? In the 17th and 18th centuries – at least in Italy and Germany and France – he would have been considered ‘the king’. And yet we hear so little of him – what a shame!


Read our review of Mahan’s recording of Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin for Hyperion Records