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French music on two harpsichords

[I] François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "Complete published trios for two harpsichords"
Gian Luca Rovelli, Marco Gaggini, harpsichord
rec: July 5 - 8, 2018, Sargiano (Arezzo), Villa 'Il Cicaleto'
Brilliant Classics - 95752 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (2.25'15")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

L'Apothéose de Lully; Le Parnasse ou L'Apothéose de Corelli; Les Nations (Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Second Ordre: L'Espagnole; Troisième Ordre: L'Impériale; Quatrième Ordre: La Piémontoise)

[II] François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Les Nations
rec: Nov 19, 2017/Jan 14 & Feb 25, 2018, Crema, Sala musicale 'Giardino'
Stradivarius - Str 37118 (© 2018) (74'41")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Troisième Ordre: L'Impériale; Quatrième Ordre: La Piémontoise

Luigi Accardo, Enrico Bissolo, harpsichord

[III] Jean Féry REBEL & Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER: "Les caractères d'Ulysse - Suites for two harpsichords"
Loris Barrucand, Clément Geoffroy, harpsichord
rec: May 20 - 23, 2019, Versailles, Château Royal
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS021 (© 2020) (74'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1689-1755): Daphnis et Chloé (ouverture; air pour les amours; menuets; rigaudons; préludes; musette; rondeau pour les Matelots; tambourins); Premier Ballet de Village; Jean Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Les Caractères de la Danse; Les Elémens; Les Plaisirs Champêtres; Ulysse (ouverture; marche pour les Faunes; passepieds; bourrée; prélude; sarabande; rondeau; second air; chaconne)

Scores Boismortier
Scores Couperin
Scores Rebel

Music for two harpsichords seems to be quite popular these days. In recent years several discs with such repertoire have been released. However, they almost exclusively include arrangements of some sort. During the 17th and 18th centuries very few original pieces for two keyboards were written. One may wonder why that is the case. One reason certainly is that keyboard music - and especially that part which was published - was intended for amateurs, and as the harpsichord was a rather expensive instrument, not many people could afford two such instruments. It seems plausible that teachers played duets with their students, but that is hardly a reason to write music for two keyboards, let alone to publish it. The best-known compositions for this scoring are the suites by the French composer Gaspard Le Roux - who offered two-keyboard versions as alternatives to the conventional versions for one harpsichord - and the concertos for two keyboards by the Spanish composer Antonio Soler.

The three productions under review here all include French music which was not originally intended for two harpsichords. Some years ago Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley recorded music by François Couperin. Most of that was written for either one harpsichord or for an ensemble of various instruments. In their performances of these pieces on two harpsichords, they were inspired by Couperin himself, who - in the preface of his Apothéose de Lully - stated that he often played his instrumental works on two harpsichords with students or with members of his family. "This trio, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli, and the complete book of trios which I hope to publish next July, may be played on two harpsichords, as well as on all other instruments. I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one."

This bears witness to the pragmatism of composers at the time. The early 18th century saw an increase of domestic music making, and as not always every instrument for which music was written, was available, the adaptation of sonatas or suites for different scorings was very common. Composers knew very well that offering different options with regard to scoring could only increase the commercial success of their printed editions. Today, performers are aware of that, which explains why sonatas for violin are often played on instruments such as the recorder or the transverse flute. In comparison, the option of playing instrumental music, such as solo sonatas or trio sonatas, at the keyboard is still the exception.

The two Couperin recordings reviewed here have in common that they include the four Ordres which Couperin published under the title of Les Nations. This collection is the "book of trios" Couperin referred to in the foreword quoted above. The two players who act under the name of daccapo confined themselves to three of the four trios. The booklet does not indicate whether the remaining trio will be recorded in due course. Gian Luca Rovelli and Marco Gaggini recorded all four Ordres as well as the two Apothéoses.

All of these pieces were published for a scoring of two melody instruments and basso continuo. The pragmatism I referred to above comes to the fore in the fact that Couperin left the choice of instruments to the performers. If one looks at the many recordings available, one notices that performers take different decisions. Some prefer two instruments of the same type, especially violins, whereas other opt for a contrast between a transverse flute and a violin. Often two pairs of violins and flutes are used, playing in alternation and sometimes colla parte. In some recordings two oboes are added, and if they all play together, these pieces get an almost orchestral flavour. This indicates that the choice of instruments was not the main concern of Couperin in order to bring out the meaning of his music.

That said, if one knows these pieces in their original scoring, one needs to adapt his expectations. It is the challenge to the performers to do justice to the character of the various pieces. That is what Couperin himself pointed out in his foreword to the Apothéose de Lully: "The only thing to which attention must be paid is the length of the notes because of the ornaments which must fill them out; bowed instruments sustain the sound whereas the harpsichord cannot do so; therefore the cadences or tremblemens and other embellishments must be very long; and if this is the case the performance will appear no less agreeable, especially as the harpsichord has a brilliance and clarity scarcely found in other instruments."

Overall, the performers have succeeded in doing so. However, it is almost inevitable that some movements come off better than others. It seems to me that the two Apothéoses are the most problematic, because of their programmatic tenor. In the Apothéose de Lully, for instance, the two harpsichords are perfectly suited to realise the 'Rumeur souterraine causée par les Auteurs contemporains de Lully'; together they can produce quite a noise. In contrast, the ensuing 'Plaintes des mêmes pour de flûtes ou des violons très adoucis' is much less convincing: here one misses the ethereal capabilities and intimacy of melody instruments as the violin and the flute. In performances with instruments, one won't hear this piece being played on oboes.

If two recordings of the same repertoire are released at about the same time, one is inclined to ask which one is to prefer. Basically both recordings are good, but there are some differences. One of these concerns the sound of the harpsichords. Rovelli and Gaggini play copies of two historical French instruments, which produce a brilliant sound, which sometimes can be a bit sharp. In comparison, the sound of the two instruments played by Luigi Accardo and Enrico Bissolo is mellower, partly due to the fact that one of them plays the copy of a German instrument. I like the sound, but this choice of instrument is a bit odd. The differences may also be the effect of the recording and the acoustic.

I have a slight preference for the Brilliant Classics recording, for several reasons. First, from a historical perspective the use of two French instruments is the most logical one. Second, this production includes the complete collection Les Nations as well as both Apothéoses - all the pieces Couperin explicitly refers to as being suitable for a performance on two harpsichords. Third, I largely prefer the tempi which Rovelli and Gaggini have chosen. In general, it is impossible to say that the tempi are 'right' or 'wrong': what is 'fast' and what is 'slow' is no matter of mathematics. However, the allemande is a dance in a moderate tempo, and here Accardo and Bissolo tend to be a bit too fast. The 1er Orde of Les Nations, entitled La Françoise, includes two courantes, the second of which has the addition "un peu plus vite". In daccapo's performance there is little difference in tempo between the two: 1'35" vs 1'29". Here Rovelli and Gaggini create a more marked difference: 1'35" vs 1'19". The last movement of La Piémontoise is surprisingly slow in daccapo's performance: 02'48". Here their colleagues have a more convincing tempo: 01'57". Lastly, sometimes I find the playing of Accardo and Bissolo a bit awkward, especially in pieces with the indication "gravement". However, there is certainly much to enjoy in their performances as well, and I am happy to have both productions.

The third item reviewed here includes music by two composers who have left nothing (Rebel) or very little (Boismortier) for the harpsichord. There are no indications that the music performed by Loris Barrucand and Clément Geoffroy can be played on two harpsichords. And here we have not to do with instrumental pieces in three parts, as the trios by Couperin, but with orchestral music, which was intended for performance in the theatre. Therefore, in this case we have to consider the performances on two harpsichords as full-blooded arrangements. This recording is the result of a commission by Hervé Niquet to produce an original show for six dancers and two harpsichords, mixing Baroque dance, pantomime, rustic theatre and opera parodies, as part of the commemoration of the birth of Jean-Féry Rebel in 2016. "To create the musical section, we extracted the pieces from the vast opus of Rebel that we considered the most attractive and most suitable for transcription for two harpsichords", the two performers state in the booklet.

Jean-Féry Rebel was the son of Jean Rebel (c1636-1692), a singer who entered the royal chapel in 1661. Five of his children became musicians, among them Anne-Renée, also a singer, and Jean-Féry. The latter was educated as a violinist and harpsichordist; from the age of eight he received lessons from Lully. In 1705 he was one of the violinists in the 24 Violons du Roi and became batteur de mesure in that ensemble as well as in the orchestra of the Opéra. Three of the compositions, which have been adapted here for two keyboards, are so-called symphonies de danse. They were intended for choreographic performances in the theatre. In addition, we get extracts from his only opera, Ulysse, a tragédie-lyrique premiered in 1703 at the Académie Royale.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, one of the few independent composers of his time, was always keen to meet the demands of the music lovers of his days. There can be little doubt that the success of Rebel's dance symphonies inspired him to compose something similar: four Ballets de Village. The first of these is included here. He also composed three works for the theatre: a ballet, a ballet-comique and Daphnis et Chloé, a pastorale, first performed at the Opéra in 1747. A suite from this work rounds off the programme.

Transcribing orchestral music is different from that of chamber music. In the latter case, the subtlety of some movements or passages is not easy to realise, whereas the noise of two harpsichords is not that different from that of an orchestra. From that angle it is not that surprising that Le Cahos, the opening movement of Les Élemens, comes off pretty well. On the other hand, it is probably impossible to include all the elements of an orchestral score. Overall, the two harpsichordists offer a well-crafted programme of music, which is attractive in itself, and doesn't lose any of its power in these transcriptions.

That is also due to the lively and engaging playing of the two artists, with the substantial assistance of two historical harpsichords preserved in the museum of the Palace of Versailles, dating from 1628 (Ruckers) and 1706 (Blanchet) respectively. This is a most enjoyable production.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Marco Gaggini

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