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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Concerts & Suites

[I] Concerts Royaux
Clavecin en Concert
Dir: Luc Beauséjour
rec: Oct 2012, Mirabel, Eglise St Augustin
Analekta - AN 2 9993 (© 2013) (60'45")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

1er Concert in G [1]; 2e Concert in D [1]; 3e Concert in A [1]; 4e Concert in e minor [1]

Grégoire Jeay, transverse flute; Matthew Jennejohn, oboe; Chantal Rémillard, violin; Margaret Little, viola da gamba; Mathieu Lussier, bassoon; Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord

[II] Pièces de violes
Paolo Pandolfo, Amélie Chemin, viola da gamba; Thomas Boysen, theorbo, guitar; Markus Hünninger, harpsichord
rec: Sept 2012, Rasteau, Église Sait Didier
Glossa - GCD 920414 (© 2013) (59'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

11e Concert in c minor (Plainte) [2]; 12e Concert in A [2]; 13e Concert in G [2]; 1ère Suite in e minor [3]; 2e Suite in a minor [3]

[1] Concerts Nouveaux, 1722; [2] Les Goûts-Réünis ou Nouveau Concerts, 1724; [3] Pièces de violes, 1728


The name of François Couperin is inextricably connected to the harpsichord. Four books with harpsichord pieces were published between 1713 and 1730 and in 1716/17 he published his treatise L'Art de toucher le clavecin. He was also educated as a player of the keyboard and was for many years organist, first (from 1685) at St Gervais and then from 1693 onwards also at the court, acting in this capacity for three months a year, in alternation with three colleagues.

At about that time he started to compose chamber music which shows the influence of the Italian style. As Italian music was not appreciated in France at the time he didn't present them under his own name. The sonatas from the 1690s were later included in the four sets of sonatas and suites printed in 1726 under the title of Les Nations. These can be counted among Couperin's most famous instrumental works, together with the two Apothéoses. In comparison the Concerts Royaux and the Les Goûts-Réünis ou Nouveau Concerts, published in 1722 and 1724 respectively, are lesser known, and that goes especially for the latter set.

The four Concerts Royaux are mostly recorded as a set. They were published as an appendix to the Troisième Livre de Clavecin on two staves, suggesting a performance on the harpsichord. However, in his preface Couperin explains that they can also be played on a variety of instruments, such as the violin, the flute, the oboe, the viola da gamba and the bassoon. He himself played them at the chamber concerts of Louis XIV with André Danican Philidor (oboe), François Duval (violin), Pierre Dubois (bassoon) and Hilaire (Alarius) Verloge (viola da gamba). It is often assumed that he composed them in 1714/15, that is at the very end of Louis XIV's life (he died on 1 September 1715). But he merely writes that he "arranged them by key and preserved the titles under which they were known at court in 1714 and 1715". From this statement we have to conclude that those are the years he put them together to the form in which we know them. Individual pieces may be considerably older. There can be no doubt that they reflect the rather conservative taste of the Sun King. That doesn't mean that they are completely devoid of Italian influences but Couperin incorporated them in such a way that they fully fit into the tradional French style which dominates here.

The four concerts open with a prélude which is followed by a sequence of dances; some of these have the additional description of air. The 2e Concert closes with the only piece with a title, Échos, which has the form of a rondeau. The 3e Concert ends with a chaconne, a form which was especially popular in France and part of every 17th-century opera. In the 4e Concert we find the only specific reference to the Italian style: a courante française is followed by a courante à l'italienne. In the performance by the ensemble Clavecin en Concert the contrast is underlined by the use of the two instruments which are the most characteristic representatives of the two styles: the transverse flute and the violin respectively. Within the concerts the line-up differs from one movement to the other, according to their character. Obviously that is partly a matter of taste; other combinations of instruments would also be possible. But overall the artists have had a good hand in mixing the available instruments. Only the combination of bassoon and harpsichord in the sarabande from the 3e Concert is a bit awkward as the former has too much presence at the cost of the harpsichord. The musette from the same Concert seems to me too demonstrative which is in contradiction to the elegance and restraint which were features of French culture at the time of Louis XIV. I also would have preferred a more intimate recording venue; the church where the recording took place has too much reverberation. However, these aspects have not spoiled my enjoyment; these are fine performances and if you don't have these concerts in your collection this disc is certainly one to investigate.

The sequel of 1724 includes ten Concerts; again they are printed on two staves and like in the case of the first four it is left to the performers to decide which instruments to use. However, two Concerts are different. The 12e Concert in A and the 13e Concert in G have the addition "a deux violes ou autres instruments à 'l'unisson". À l'unisson doesn't mean that they play in unison but that here two instruments of the same pitch should be used, as the reference to the viols indicates. These two works are played by Paolo Pandolfo and Amélie Chemin; although the prélude from the 12e Concert includes some episodes with a figured bass the harpsichord doesn't participate here. Couperin stated that it can take part but that a performance with "two violas da gamba or two related instruments, without anything else" is to be preferred. Notable is that in the last movement, gracieusement et légèrement, the two viols follow each other and cross over one another. The 13e Concert opens with a prélude in the form of a canon. This form returns in the closing chaconne légère in which episodes in canon alternate with passages in which both viols move in parallel thirds. This chaconne has not the traditional rondeau texture. The 11e Concert includes one movement which is also scored for two viole da gamba, called Plainte pour les violes ou autres instruments à 'l'unisson. It has a bass part which is not figured; in Paolo Pandolfo's recording it is played at the theorbo but without added harmonies.

It makes much sense to add these pieces to what was clearly intended as a recording of the two suites for viola da gamba and bc. They were published in 1728 and are the last collection of instrumental music from Couperin's pen which was printed; it was followed in 1730 by the last book of harpsichord pieces. It is unlikely that Couperin himself played the viola da gamba but he must have had a very good knowledge of the instrument, considering the technical level of these suites. Philippe Beausant, in his liner-notes, observes a clear difference in Couperin's writing for the viola da gamba in these suites, in comparison to that in the two Concerts just discussed. In the Concerts "Couperin comes over as being a little intimidated, as though he was not yet familiar with the instrument." The difference could well have a different reason: the Concerts should preferably be played on two viole da gamba but with the addition "ou autres instruments" Couperin suggests the possibility of alternatives; therefore his writing could not be too idiomatic.

The title page has Pièces de violes but the edition has only parts for one viola da gamba and a figured bass. The second viola da gamba follows the bass part but takes a soloistic role in several movements, and especially in the Suite No. 2 in A. The latter opens with a prélude which has the form of a canon. Next is a fuguette, a little light-hearted piece, which is followed by a magnificent tombeau, called pompe funèbre. It includes double stopping and chromatic harmonies. There are several sequences of strong chords; Beaussant suggests they could be a depiction of church bells, or represent organ chords or drum rolls. The last movement is called la chemise blanche. Beaussant writes that this is part of a game of cards. "One effectively asks for a "chemise blanche" when one discards the nine cards and replaces them with nine new ones. The "chemise blanche" that is wanting to say, "I have won ..." Against who? Marin Marais, of course, is the answer!" The latter is an interesting suggestion, but purely speculative. As so often with character pieces, such as those in Couperin's harpsichord pieces, we mostly don't know for sure what they refer to.

The prélude from the Suite No. 1 in e minor is dominated by descending figures; again it includes double stopping. The ensuing allemande légère includes wide leaps and the suite ends with a passacaille ou chaconne. These are often considered more or less the same but that is not entirely true. Beaussant refers to Sébastien de Brossard who states that the passacaille is usually slower than the chaconne and almost always in the minor. This could explain Couperin's use of both terms as here he moves from minor to major and vice versa.

Paolo Pandolfo often delivers very personal interpretations as I noted in my review of his recording of Pièces de Violle by Machy. Whether one appreciates his approach is a matter of taste. Here I enjoyed the concerts and the second suite most, because there he is more moderate and less extreme, for instance in regard to dynamics. That could well be due to the fact that in those pieces the second viola da gamba plays a more important role than in the first suite and is more or less the first viol's equal partner. It is especially in the first suite that I noted several features of Pandolfo's playing which make me raise my eyebrows. In the opening prélude he creates very large dynamic contrasts which seem to me more suitable to Italian than to French music. In the allemande légère he so strongly emphasizes the good notes that the unstressed notes are sometimes hardly audible. Beaussant describes the third movement, a courante, as "dignified, measured and refined" and that seems in contradiction to Pandolfo's very strong dynamic accents'"refined" is probably not the word which I would use to describe the performance. The opening movement from the 12e Concert has the tempo indication modéré; the tempo Pandolfo has chosen seems a little too fast.

The performance of the 1e Suite is the one I prefer; I would have liked a little more restraint which I believe would be more in line with French taste of the time, as I have indicated above. I am much more enthusiastic about the rest of his disc which include fine and often even brilliant interpretations; the pompe funèbre from the 2e Suite and the Plainte from the 11e Concert are defnitely two of the highlights.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Clavecin en Concert
Paolo Pandolfo

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