musica Dei donum

CD reviews

François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Les Nations

Les Talens Lyriques
Dir: Christophe Rousset

rec: Sept 7 - 13, 2017, Paris, Galeri Dorée de la Banque de France
Aparté - AP197 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.49'00")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

1er Ordre: La Françoise in e minor; 2e Ordre: L'Espagnole in in c minor; 3e Ordre: L'Impériale in d minor; 4e Ordre: La Piémontoise in g minor

Source: Les Nations: Sonades et Suites de Simphonies en Trio, 1726

Jocelyn Daubigney, Stefanie Troffaes, transverse flute; Josep Domenech, Thomas Meraner, oboe; Gilone Gaubert-Jacques, Gabriel Grosbard, violin; Eyal Street, bassoon; Atsushi Sakaï, viola da gamba; Laura Mónica Pustilnik, theorbo; Christophe Rousset, harpsichord

Until the early 18th century, Italian music was not appreciated in France. At least, not officially - Italian influences were considered a threat to the traditional French style, as incorporated by in particular the lute and the viola da gamba. However, there were some musicians and composers who were attracted by the Italian style, such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Sébastien de Brossard, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre and François Couperin. Jacquet de La Guerre was one of the first to compose trio sonatas - an Italian invention, whose structure had been laid down by Arcangelo Corelli. She published her trio sonatas after the turn of the century, when the influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully and his employer, Louis XIV, was waning.

Couperin only later admitted that he had written and performed trio sonatas in the 1690s, but under a different name. He did so in the preface to his collection of instrumental music which he published in 1726. There was a reason for that: the collection consisted of four ordres, each of which opened with a trio sonata. Three of them date from the 1690s, and were reworkings of trio sonatas Couperin had written at that time. He also changed their titles. The trio sonata in La Françoise was originally called La Pucelle, the one in L'Espagnole was known as La Visionnaire and the sonata L'Astrée found its way into La Piémontoise. It has always been assumed that the trio sonata from L'Impériale was specifically composed for Les Nations. However, this is a reworking of a sonata with the title La Convalescente which was discovered in 2005 in Dresden. It is a copy by Johann Georg Pisendel, the star violinist of the Dresden court chapel in the first half of the 18th century. As no autograph exists, it is impossible to say when it may have been written. It could have been another trio sonata from the 1690s, but Couperin may also have written it at a later time.

The trio sonatas - which Couperin called sonades - are Italian in style, but the character indications are in French. They are followed by traditional French suites, comprising a number of dances, such as allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, gavotte, bourrée and menuet. Three of the ordres include a chaconne or passacaille, which was an almost indispensable part of any opera and of many instrumental suites in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Three ordres also include a rondeau, a form which gained quickly great popularity in France during the first half of the 18th century. With their mixture of Italian and French elements, the collection is an eloquent expression of what was Couperin's ideal in music, known as goûts réunis.

Couperin did not indicate the instruments on which Les Nations should be performed. The title page doesn't mention any instrument; the four part books only refer to 1. dessus and 2e dessus, a basse d'archet (string bass) and basse chifrée (basso continuo). Even a performance on harpsichord - or two harpsichords - is a legitimate option, as Couperin himself indicated in the preface to his Apothéose de Lully. As other interpreters before him, Christophe Rousset opted for three pairs of treble instruments: transverse flutes, oboes and violins, which play either colla parte or in turn.

The use of various instruments offers the possibility to create different shades of colours as well as dynamic contrasts. Moreover, when the instruments play in turn, the different sections of a movement, such as a rondeau, can be clearly singled out. All four ordres include a pair of courantes: they differ in character, as the score indicates, and that can be emphasized through a difference in instrumentation.

Rousset and his colleagues deliver masterful performances in which those differences come off clearly. The line-up in the various movements or sections of movements is well chosen. The tempi are convincing: some slower movements, such as the sarabandes, are really slow, which creates a strong contrast with the faster movements. These performances are a good mixture of French elegance and Italian pathos. The only minor reservation I have is that I find the sound of the violins a bit too sharp. But others may think otherwise.

There are several fine performances of Les Nations on the market. If you don't have one in your collection, this set may well be the one to go for.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Les Talens Lyriques

CD Reviews