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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "4 Livres de pièces de clavecin - Complete harpsichord music"

Michael Borgstede, harpsichord
Sophie Gent, violin; Joshua Cheatham, viola da gamba; Haru Kitamika, harpsichord

rec: March/April 2004, Jan/Feb/June 2005, Utrecht, Oudkatholieke Kerk Maria minor; Schiedam, Westvestkerk; Rhoon, NH Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 93082 (11 CDs) (© 2007) (11.52')

L'Art de toucher le clavecin, 1716 (8 Préludes); Premier Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1713 (Ordres 1-5); Second Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1717 (Ordres 6-12); Troisième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1722 (Ordres 13-19); Quatrième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1730 (Ordres 20-27)

The Dutch keyboard player Ton Koopman once said he would stop playing the organ if he wasn't allowed to play Bach anymore, but he would continue playing the harpsichord. What he meant was that if Bach's organ music is taken away from an organist there is little left, whereas the repertoire for the harpsichord is so huge that even without playing Bach a harpsichordist can find plenty of fine music to play. That is certainly true: one has only to think of Frescobaldi and many Italian composers of the 17th century, Domenico Scarlatti, Johann Jakob Froberger and the many composers of harpsichord music in France from the middle of the 17th to the end of the 18th century. One of the towering figures in the history of French harpsichord music is François Couperin, whose complete works for harpsichord have been recorded by the Israelian keyboard player Michael Borgstede for Brilliant Classics.

Thinking of it there is every reason to compare Johann Sebastian Bach and François Couperin. At first sight there seem to be many differences: the largest part of his life Bach worked as a church musician in a city without a royal court, whereas Couperin was connected to the French court most of his life. Bach was generally considered old-fashioned, but Couperin was a forward-looking composer whose own keyboard works reflect the developments in composing in France and the changing tastes of his audiences. But there are also similarities: both were born into musical families (although Couperin's wasn't as extended as Bach's), both were educated as organists and developed into great keyboard virtuosos, both were looking for expression and both, to that end, advocated a mixture of the Italian and the French style, which Couperin called the goût réuni. Nothing is known about Couperin's acquaintance with Bach's oeuvre, but Bach certainly knew and appreciated Couperin's music: his pupil Gerber stated that Bach's playing style was influenced by Couperin. And Bach copied a keyboard piece by the French master and included it in the Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. As many composers in the 19th and 20th century were fascinated and inspired by Bach, Couperin also raised the interest of composers in later eras, like Debussy and Ravel. And Johannes Brahms, who studied Bach's music, also published the first modern edition of Couperin's harpsichord works.

So there can be no doubt about the quality and the historical importance of Couperin's harpsichord oeuvre. All the same there are not that many complete recordings available. One of the reasons is that his music is not easy to interpret, and often difficult to understand. Many pieces have titles which are hardly understandable to a modern performer or listener. To their frustration the composer didn't bother to reveal their meaning: "I have always had a subject when composing these pieces; different occasions have provided it. Thus the titles relate to ideas that have occurred to me, and I shall be forgiven if I do not account for them". As a result the titles are interpreted in different ways by different interpreters, and sometimes give cause for speculation. For instance, Michael Borgstede, in the programme notes, has an interesting view on the 17e Ordre, which opens with 'La Superbe ou la Forqueray', which "is obviously a portrait of the well-known gamba virtuoso Antoine Forqueray. Forqueray was a proud and stubborn man, who in later life would have his own son thrown into prison out of pure jealousy. Couperin's portrait fails to convince us of his affection for his Super-Star colleague. And could the Forqueray theme be carried on throughout the ordre? The 'Petits Moulins à Vent' may parody, not little windmills as the title at first glance may suggest, but the egocentrist gambist's vigorous virtuosity." And he suggests that the third piece, 'Les Timbres', is perhaps a way to express that Forqueray was a bit mad.

Although Couperin's music can be quite virtuosic the composer's objective was expression: "I frankly admit that I much prefer that which moves me to that which amazes me." And: "I shall always be grateful to those who by unfettered ability supported by good taste can make this instrument capable of expression". And to that end he required the utmost care from the interpreter: "I am always surprised, after the pains I have given myself for marking the ornaments which are suitable to my Pièces ... to hear persons who have learned them without heeding my instructions. This is an unpardonable neglicence, the more so since it is not at all an arbitary matter to put in what ornaments one wishes." And there are other tools Couperin - like many composers of his time - uses to express what he had in mind. As Wilfred Mellers puts it: "The dissonant sobs, the portamento sighs, the haze of fioriture with which the composer-virtuosi embellished their dance-structures were not designed primarily to exhibit technical skill; their purpose was to make the instrument speak more feelingly to an audience hyper-sensitively aware of the complexities of the human heart".

These "complexities of the human heart" are impressively displayed in the four books with harpsichord pieces, divided into 27 Ordres, and - together with the preludes in Couperin's treatise L'Art de toucher le clavecin, published in 1716 - reach the number of 235. What becomes clear from this large output is that Couperin was very interested in the world which surrounded him. A number of pieces reflect elements of the popular culture, for instance the circus. A good example is the 11e Ordre, which contains a piece with the mysterious title 'Les Fastes de la grande et ancienne Mxnxstrxndxsx'. We meet jugglers, acrobats, beggars, fiddlers, bears and monkeys, and also disabled people. That probably refers to the habit of exhibiting that sort of people in a kind of freak show. The present sensitivity towards physical disabilities didn't exist in those days. And Couperin may never have written an opera, he certainly was interested in the theatre. Some titles refer to then well-known theatrical works, like 'Les Calotins et les Calotines ou la Pièce à tretous' (19e Ordre), inspired by the play 'Le Régiment de Calotte'. And 'Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins' (18e Ordre) refers to a family of acrobats, Maillot, working at the Foire theatre. Some pieces are dramatic in character, like 'La Dangereuse' (5e Ordre), or programmatic, like a battle-scene (La Triomphante, 10e Ordre) or a description of the stages in human life (Les Petits Ages, 7e Ordre).

In addition there are many references to nature and the life at the countryside. The 6e Ordre, for instance, depicts 'Les Moissonneurs' (the reapers), 'Le Gazoüillement' (the chirping), 'Le Moucheron' (the midge) and, of course, 'Les Bergeries' (pastorals) whose second section contains an imitation of a bagpipe. And there is also 'Les Langueurs tendres': the languidness the title refers to could well be the effect of the summer heat at the countryside.

Couperin couldn't ignore some of the most common musical forms in those days. Therefore the 8e Ordre contains a Passacaille. It is one of Couperin's most famous and intriguing compositions: here not only the bass is repeated time and again during the whole piece - as usual in a passacaille - but also the opening statement, to which Couperin returns many times. It is also characterised by strong harmonic tensions. And then there is the Folia theme: many composers wrote variations on it, and so did Couperin in the 13e Ordre: 'Les Folies françoise ou les Dominos'.

Lastly: in his oeuvre Couperin shows a preference for "quiet music and inner expression", as a commentator stated. One of the most impressive examples of this inner expression is 'Les Ombres errantes', whose deep sadness is expressed in strong sighing figures, chromaticism and dissonances. It is one of the darkest pieces of all four books.

Before talking about the qualities of Michael Borgstede's interpretation, let me concentrate on the technicalities. Borgstede uses two harpsichords, both built by the Dutch harpsichord builder Titus Crijnen. The first - used in the books 1 to 3 - is a copy of a Ruckers, dating from 1638. This is a little surprising as it seems a little unlikely that in Couperin's time such an early instrument has been used. It is a beautiful instrument, but its tone is a little too aggressive, and I find the second instrument, after an original by Henri Hemsch from 1754, more appropriate to perform Couperin's music. In the 'Allemande à deux clavecins' from the 9e Ordre Borgstede is assisted by Haru Kitamika. In some pieces one of the parts is played on a string instrument, a violin (in the two 'Musétes' from the 15e Ordre and 'La Létiville' from the 16e Ordre) or a viola da gamba (in the second section of 'La Croûilli ou la Couperinéte' from the 20e Ordre). This was common practice at the time, and another piece, 'Le Rossignol-en-amour' (14e Ordre), is frequently performed with a transverse flute in the upper part. The first eight Ordres open with a 'Prélude' from Couperin's book L'Art de toucher le clavecin.

The recording engineer has done a good job: the recording is crisp and clear, and the microphones have been close enough to the harpsichord to make all lines clearly audible without creating a sound which is too obtrusive. Only at the first couple of discs I heard some noises which should have been filtered out. And sometimes Borgstede taking his hands off the harpsichord at the end of a piece causes some unpleasant noises.

As far as the presentation is concerned, Michael Borgstede has written interesting programme notes, but a more extensive explanation of the titles hadn't done any harm. The print of the tracklists on the covers of the individual discs is rather small and the red colour of the covers doesn't make it any easier to read them. The duration of the discs on the cover is seldom correct. And although the first Ordres seem to consist of pieces put together more or less at random, I am not happy with the fact that the 2e Ordre, by far the longest of all, is divided over two discs. The 1er Ordre and the 3e Ordre could easily been put on one disc, and the whole 3e Ordre on another. Lastly: the pauses between the Ordres are too short.

But far more important are Michael Borgstede's interpretations, and I have to say that I am very impressed by his performances. There is great variety in Couperin's oeuvre for the harpsichord, and he himself stated that not every player is capable of playing everything equally convincing: "Experience has taught me that vigorous hands capable of the fastest and lightest playing do not always have the most success with tender and expressive pieces". There can be no doubt that Michael Borgstede has "vigorous hands" which are capable of playing fast pieces. An impressive example is the previously mentioned 'Les Fastes de la grande et ancienne Mxnxstrxndxsx' from the 11e Ordre: the depiction of a circus ends in complete chaos, and this piece should be played "very fast" - and that is what Borgstede does in a most impressive way.

But I am happy to report that in general Borgstede is equally convincing in the "tender and expressive pieces". The tempo and registration of 'La Lugubre' (3e Ordre) is excellently suited to express its dark mood. And 'Le Rossignol-en-amour' can't be given a more moving performance with a transverse flute than it gets here, in a brilliant timing. 'La Rafraîchissante' (meaning: refreshing) (9e Ordre) should be played 'with nonchalance' - Borgstede's relaxed performance is spot on. Michael Borgstede is the keyboard player of the ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, which pays great attention to the dramatic and emotional character of baroque music. Therefore one may expect to recognize that in Borgstede's performances here, and he doesn't disappoint in this respect. The contrast between pieces within a particular Ordre, or between sections within a single piece are generally very well realised.

I am less impressed by the performances of the Préludes from Couperin's treatise L'Art de toucher le clavecin. The composer explained that although he had 'measured' them (which means that he had added bars, unlike the traditional French prélude non mesuré) for the convenience of the performers, these preludes should be played with utmost freedom. I feel that freedom is a little lacking here: I had liked a more imaginative performance. Sometimes I think the tenderness a piece requires isn't fully realised. For example, the coupling of the two manuals in 'Les Idées heureuses' (2e Ordre) is probably not the ideal way to play 'tendrement', which this piece requires. On the other hand, in 'Les langueurs tendres' (6e Ordre) the languidness is brilliantly expressed by Michael Borgstede. I am generally satisfied by the choice of tempo. But 'Les Amusements' (7e Ordre) doesn't sound very joyful, and that has something to do with the tempo, which seems a little too slow considering the indication 'sans lenteur'. But the character pieces fare splendidly: the often very vivid descriptions of animals, people or things are in very capable hands here.

The keyword in the aesthetics of the first half of the 18th century is bon goût, good taste. Couperin's harpsichord music is an impressive testimony of that ideal. 'Good taste' should also be the guideline for every interpretation of music from this period: not every aspect of the performance can be written down, and that is where the good taste comes in. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Michael Borgstede is that his recording of Couperin's harpsichord works fully answers the 18th century ideal of bon goût.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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Michael Borgstede

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