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Víkingur Ólafsson says he has always loved Debussy, and that his first encounter with Rameau was hearing Gilels’ 1951 recording of ‘Le rappel des oiseaux’. Ólafsson’s second encounter was total immersion in Rameau’s keyboard works while he waited for his first child to (tardily) appear. But he regards these composers, despite their profoundly contrasting styles, as brothers under the skin. Both, he says, were revolutionaries, and both possessed a ‘relentless intellectual independence’. Both also had a synaesthetic streak: while Debussy drew inspiration from paintings and sculptures, Rameau took a scientific interest in the colour of sounds, and in the orchestral effects he drew from his instrument.

Ólafsson says he has allowed the choice and arrangement of pieces on this album to be guided by the music, rather than by any intellectual scheme, and the result is very satisfying. He gently rings the changes between the composers, beginning with the archaic grace of ‘La damoiselle élue’ before seguing into a series of Rameau’s 1724 Pièces de clavecin which begin with the ravishingly evocative ‘Le rappel des oiseaux’ in which each bird adds its distinctive sound to the mix. Then we plunge into Debussy’s rain-washed gardens, followed by two pieces from Children’s Corner, after which it’s back to the plangent sweetness of Rameau’s ‘Les tendres plaintes’.

Ólafsson’s touch is malleable: suggestive in the Debussy pieces and bracingly gritty for Rameau. The centrepiece of the collection is his own transcription of an interlude from Rameau’s final opera, Les Boréades, which comes over as a meditation. ‘Les sauvages’ is one of the few Rameau pieces which will be familiar to listeners; the rest will be a refreshing dip into unknown waters. The final piece is a perfectly poised rendering of Debussy’s ‘Hommage à Rameau’.

MICHAEL CHURCH Read the full review on Agora Classica

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