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Nicholas SIRET (1663 - 1754): "The French Harpsichord Suites"

Vera Alperovicha, Daniele Luca Zanghib, harpsichord

rec: August [year not mentioned], Lugano, Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana (Aula Magna)
Brilliant Classics - 96130 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (2.08'50")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pièces de Clavecin [Book 1]
Suite in Da; Suite in d minorb
Second Livre de Pièces de Clavecin
Suite in Ga; Suite in g minora; Suite in Ab; Suite in a minorb

French harpsichord music regularly appears on disc. The names of the great composers in this genre are well-known: Louis and François Couperin, d'Anglebert, Rameau, Forqueray, Duphly and a few others. Nicolas Siret is not one of them. The production under review here is the third recording of his oeuvre for harpsichord. The first was released in 1998 on the label Accord; the harpsichordist was Davitt Moroney. Urania Records released a recording by Fernando De Luca in 2017 (which I have not heard). Even individual pieces have been hardly included in anthologies. Who was Siret and why has he remained under the radar?

One of the reasons is that he spent most of his life outside of Paris, which was not only the political, but also the cultural centre of France. He was born and died in Troyes, southeast of Paris. He was a member of a family of organists of four generations, and he himself was also educated as organist. In 1689 he succeeded his father as organist of the Cathedral. From 1693 he also acted as organist of St Jean. Although he lived and worked in Troyes, he had close contacts with colleagues in Paris, and in particular with François Couperin. To him he dedicated his first book of harpsichord pieces. Their friendship may indicate that Siret lived in Paris for some time, and it has been suggested that one of the organistes du roi, Jacques Thomelin, was not only François Couperin's teacher, but also Siret's. However, there is no firm evidence of that. From 1704 onwards he certainly lived in Troyes.

The preface to his first book of harpsichord pieces, which is undated, but must have been published between 1707 and 1711, includes warm words about Couperin: "The sincere friendship with which you have honoured me for over twenty years, makes me bound to give you some token of my gratitude by offering to you two suittes of my pieces. I leave my province every year to come here to admire you, and I never return without having my imagination filled with a thousand beautiful things. What more perfect model could I have taken?"

However, that model seems to have left little traces in Siret's first book. Whereas Couperin wrote quite some character pieces, these are completely absent here. The two suites open with an ouverture, but these have no connection whatsoever with opera. Transcriptions of pieces from operas were also fashionable; Jean-Henry d'Anglebert was the one who wrote many of such pieces, but in Siret's suites no transcriptions are to be found. The dances are the then common allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, plus dances as gavotte and menuet. The second suite ends with a passacaille (erroneously called passacaglia in the track-list).

The second book dates from 1719. It opens surprisingly with an unmeasured prelude - a form that was completely out of fashion at the time. The last printed prelude of this kind was the one by Rameau in his harpsichord book of 1706. In these four suites we find some character pieces, and some of these may have been inspired by Couperin. Siret included L'Espagnole, whereas in Couperin's first book we find a piece called L'Espagnolète. Both composers wrote a piece with the title La Manon. Couperin, in turn, may have replied to Siret's gigue L'enjouée (from the Suite in G; the title is omitted in the track-list) with his piece of the same title in his third harpsichord book of 1722. In Siret's second book we also find a number of rondeaus, a form that gained quickly in popularity. Again the last piece of this book is a basso ostinato, this time a chaconne.

The editor of Siret's oeuvre, Denis Herlin, in his liner-notes to Moroney's recording (which I have used for this review), states that "Siret's second book of harpsichord pieces admirably bridges the gap between the first French harpsichord school, which culminates with the D minor suite of Louis Marchand (1699), and the new, early eighteenth-century style, exemplified by the majority of Couperin's pieces in his first two books". In general one can say that these two books are substantial additions to the repertoire of French harpsichord music, which are unjustly neglected. The release of this set of two discs with the entire harpsichord oeuvre is most welcome.

Moroney also included the single organ piece by Siret that has come down to us. It is a bit of a shame that it was not included here. One wonders why Stefano Molardi, himself also an organist, did not record it. He is the author of the liner-notes to the Brilliant Classics recording and also the teacher of the two performers who take care of Siret's harpsichord works. Both started their career as pianists, and only later turned to the harpsichord. It is impressive how they have been able to master the instrument in a relative short period of time. They both deliver idiomatic performances. I have not noticed any traces of piano technique.

I have enjoyed the performances of both of them. It is only here and there that I found Vera Alperovich's playing a bit abrasive and lacking in elegance. In the performances by Daniele Luca Zanghi I did not like the use of a 4'-stop in the central section of the Seconde Partie du Rondeau (Suite in a minor). In the end I probably prefer Moroney, also because I like the sound of his harpsichord better. However, if you are interested in French harpsichord music, you should add this production to your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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