Goldbergs One More Time: Jean Rondeau at the Morgan

Jean Rondeau

A few weeks ago I posted about the numerous harpsichord performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in New York City this season. At the time, Jean Rondeau’s much-anticipated recital was still in the future, but last week the young French virtuoso made his New York City solo harpsichord debut at the Morgan Library’s Gilder Lehrman Hall on April 19—naturally with the Goldbergs. (That weekend he played them in Boston and again on Sunday at an intimate house concert in the DC-area’s Capriccio Baroque series.) I attended the Morgan performance and offer this addendum to my earlier survey of the Goldberg Variations in our musically rich—if often frenetic—city.

The pre-concert talk consisted of Rondeau himself, alone on stage, fielding comments from audience members and seeming relaxed as he listened to random questions in a language that was not his mother tongue, answering them with a charming nonchalance and grace. In response to one question about how he prepared for a recital like this—featuring as it does a concert-long warhorse—he said that his main challenge would be to stay awake, since he had arrived only the day before and was fighting off jetlag. What about playing a different instrument in every city? Well, that was enjoyable, since he got to know the instrument better and better as the concert progressed and discovered what its strengths and qualities were.

After this preamble, he returned for the concert proper, ready for the work ahead, his shoulder-length hair now in a bun. He sat at a French double by David J. Way (1987) and opened the recital not with the famous Aria but with an apparently improvised prelude, which had the character of a prélude non mesuré from an earlier generation of clavecinistes. But then the Aria arrived, first with the standard ornamentation, then with more ornaments on the repeats, all done with skill and taste. The thirty variations that followed were impeccably rendered, by turns dazzling and sensuous—some even sexy, an adjective you might not immediately think of in connection with the Goldbergs. For several of the more terrifying variations—the ones that require treacherous hand-crossings on the two manuals and that seem devised to cause derailment—Rondeau savored the notes at a leisurely pace and even reversed manuals on the repeats for sonic variety. He drew a gorgeous sound from the instrument throughout and received, after a long and reverent silence, a boisterous standing ovation from the audience.

I should point out that Jean Rondeau will return to the Capriccio Baroque series next season, so check back for dates.