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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "The Sphere of Intimacy"

Cyrille Dubois, tenora
Les Talens Lyriques
Dir: Christophe Rousset

rec: July 10 - 14, 2016, Guebwiller, Couvent des Dominicains; Sept 2017, Paris, Banque de France (Galerie Dorée); April 16 - 17, 2021, Paris, Temple Saint-Pierre
Aparté - AP281 (© 2022) (67'52)
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Gavotte italienneb [1]; François COUPERIN; Brunette (Zéphire, modère en ces lieux)a; Doux liens de mon coeura; L'Abeillesup>b [1]; La Badinesup>b [1]; La Dianesup>b [1]; La Florentinesup>b [1]; La Pastorelle (Il faut aimer)a; La Steinkerque, sonate en trio; La Sultane, sonate en quatuor; La Superbe, sonate en trio; Les Nonettes. Les Blondes - Les Nonettes. Les Brunessup>b [1]; Les Pèlerines (Au temple de l'amour)a; Les Solitaires (Dans l'Île de Cythère)a; Qu'on ne me dise plusa; Siciliennesup>b [1]; Souvent dans le plus doux sorta; Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732): La Badine (attr)sup>b [1]; La Vénitiennesup>b [1]; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): La Polonaisesup>b [1]

Sources: [1] Christophe Ballard, ed., Pièces choisies pour le clavecin de différents auteurs, 1710

Jocelyne Daubigney, Stefani Trofaes, transverse flute; Josep Domenech, Thomas Meraner, Gilles Vanssons, Vincent Blanchard, oboe; Eyal Streett, bassoon; Gilone Gaubert, Virginie Descharmes, Gabriel Grosbard, violin; Atsushi Sakai, Marion Martineau, viola da gamba; Christophe Rousset, harpsichord (solob)

François Couperin has left a large oeuvre. Most of it is intended for performance in domestic surroundings, at the royal court to which the composer was connected, or in the salons of the upper echelons of society. The exceptions are his sacred music - among it his famous Leçons de ténèbres - and his two organ masses. His harpsichord music and his instrumental works are part of the standard repertoire today, but his secular vocal music is hardly known. That part of his oeuvre seems to be the motivation for the recording which has the appropriate title "The Sphere of Intimacy".

The songs that are the thread of the programme performed by Cyrille Dubois and the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, whose director Christophe Rousset also plays some harpsichord solos, are rooted in a long tradition of airs de cour. It was one of the main genres of musical entertainment at the French court in the first half of the 17th century. Some composers who contributed to this genre are still well-known, such as Puerre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, Etienne Moulinié and Michel Lambert. The term air de cour was used for the first time by the music publisher Adrian Le Roy who in 1571 published the collection Livre d'air de cours miz sur le luth: songs for voice and lute. The air de cour is the general term for different kind of songs, the most important of which are the air sérieux and the air à boire. Both are represented in Couperin's oeuvre.

It is not exactly known how many such songs Couperin has composed. The earliest specimens were published without the name of the composer. They were included in the monthly Recueils d’airs sérieux et à boire, which were published by Ballard from 1695 onwards. Denis Herlin, in his liner-notes, writes that a number of songs whose composer could not be identified, may in fact have been written by Couperin. A document which probably dates from the 1720s, includes a song in Couperin's own handwriting, without a basso continuo part; in this recording it makes its first appearance on disc with a basso continuo part from the pen of Christophe Rousset.

It is interesting that some of Couperin's songs appear elsewhere in his oeuvre in other scorings. Both La Pastorelle and Les Pèlerines are adaptations of pieces from the Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (1713). In the preface to his Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin Couperin expressed that he agreed with such adaptations: "I should never have thought that my pieces would achieve immortality; but since several famous poets have done them the honour of parodying them, this mark of favour could well, in time to come, mean that my pieces share a reputation that they will owe originally to the charming parodies they have inspired."

The ten harpsichord pieces included in the programme can in a way be connected to the airs. In August 1707 Ballard published Pièces choisies pour le clavecin de différents auteurs. Two of Couperin's pieces, L'Abeille and Les Nonettes, are called "petits airs tendres"; they are similar in style to the airs. These and the other three pieces, La Diane, La Florentine and La Badine, are also included in the first book of harpsichord pieces, sometimes a little changed. Two other pieces, Sicilienne and La Badine, come without the name of the composer and may have been written by Couperin as well. The remaining four pieces are anonymous and by Marin Marais and Louis Marchand respectively. Marais's La Polonaise is the transcription of a viola da gamba piece from his second book of 1701.

In Couperin's airs de cour he mixed elements of the French and the Italian style, as he did in his music for instrumental ensemble. From early on he was interested in Italian music, and especially admired Arcangelo Corelli. In the 1690s he wrote some sonatas in the Italian style, but under a nickname, as at that time Italian music was not appreciated in France (at least not officially). Three of the trio sonatas are included here. La Steinkerque has the traces of programme music. The title refers to the Battle of Steinkerque, a French victory during the Nine Years' War, in August 1692. It is one of the earliest of the sonatas Couperin composed in the 1690s. It opens with a movement with the title 'bruits de guerre', which is followed by an 'air lentement', sounding like a lament about the victims. Later we hear a 'mouvement de fanfares', which is a kind of celebration of the victory.

La Sultane and La Superbe date from around 1695. The former is the only piece in four parts, called quatuor. It has two parts for a string bass, which at the time was the viola da gamba. Notable is the length of the opening movement, here called 'gravement', longer than any of the opening movements of the previous sonatas. The 'air tedrement' is a dialogue between the two treble and the two bass instruments.

The discography of Couperin's oeuvre is large, but in a way a little one-sided. The harpsichord works are frequently recorded, and there is no lack of recordings of the instrumental music, which was published under the titles of Les Nations, Concerts Royaux and Les Goûts-Réünis respectively. In comparison some of the early sonatas are far less often recorded (some of them were later included under different titles in Les Nations, but not the sonatas performed here). The airs de cour are the least-known part of Couperin's oeuvre, and this recording shows that this lack of interest is not justified. From that angle this disc is of great importance. Fortunately the performances leave little to be desired. The sonatas may originally have been intended for strings, but it seems justified to involve transverse flutes and oboes, which were often played colla parte or in alternation with strings in French music at the time. La Steinkerque is a highlight; the 'air lentement' is performed in a remarkably slow tempo, which does the nature of this movement full justice. Cyrille Dubois sings the airs with the subtlety they require, and adds tasteful ornamentation. Only here and there a slight vibrato creeps in, but it is hardly disturbing. His performances are a good case for these songs. Unfortunately Christophe Rousset, who delivers exquisite performances of the little harpsichord pieces, sticks to the use of modern pronunciation in his performances and recordings.

In short, if you like Couperin's music, this disc fully deserves a place in your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Cyrille Dubois
Les Talens Lyriques

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