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"Versailles Westminster"

Constance Taillard, harpsichorda, organb

rec: Dec 21 - 23, 2020, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS056 (© 2022) (78'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Jean Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1629-1691): Les songes agreábles (Lully)a; Ouverture Cadmus et Hermione (Lully)a; Passacaille (Lully)a; John BLOW (1649-1708): Cornet Voluntary in A minorb; Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661): Fantaisie - Récit de basseb; Duob; Fugue sur le Cromorneb; Nicolas LEBÈGUE (1631-1702): Suite du 1er tonb [2]; Guillaume-Gabriel NIVERS (1632-1714): Suite de 5e tonb [1]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Ground in c minor (Z D221)a; King Arthur, or The British Worthy (Z 628) (How happy the lover)b; Suite No. 4 in A minor (Z 663)a [3]; The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (Dance for the Fairies; Dance for the followers of the night; Dance for the green man; Entry Dance; Jig)b; Voluntary in G (Z 720)b; Voluntary for double organ in D minor (Z 719)b

Sources: [1] Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, Premier Livre d'Orgue contenant cent pièces de tous les tons de l'église, 1665; [2] Nicolas Lebègue, Premier Livre d'Orgue, 1676; [3] Henry Purcell, A Choice Collection of Lessons, 1696

The disc under review here bears an intriguing title. What have Versailles and Westminster to do with each other? At the reverse of the physical disc we read: "France and England had strong musical links during the reign of Louis XIV, with two English sovereigns exiled to France, Francophiles and Francophones, Catholics and allies, linked by blood to their cousin, the Greatest King in the world". This statement is not entirely correct. The two English monarchs were Charles II, who ascended the British throne as a result of the Restoration in 1660, and his younger brother James, who - as Charles had no (legitimate) son - succeeded him in 1685. However, Charles was no Catholic; James was, and this resulted in his being removed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought Charles's daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, to the throne. Louis XIV was connected to the two English monarchs by his mother: Louis XIII's wife was the sister of Charles's mother.

It is certainly true that Charles was a Francophile. He had spent the years of his exile in France, and was deeply impressed by the splendour of Louis's court. After his return, musical life at the court was modelled after what he had experienced in France, and that included the creation of an instrumental ensemble, called the Twenty-Four Violins, inspired by the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy. In the oeuvre of composers of that time, the influence of the French style cannot be overlooked. Henry Purcell is a clear example: many of his vocal works - Odes, Welcome Songs, anthems - open with an overture which includes the typical French dotted rhythms. The purpose of the programme recorded by Constance Taillard, is to show the similarity in style between French and two English composers: Henry Purcell and his teacher and colleague John Blow.

The concept of this disc is certainly interesting, but the way it has been worked out is not unproblematic. Constance Taillard plays both the organ at the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, which dates from 1711, and a harpsichord, built by François-Etienne I Blanchet in 1746. Unfortunately, the track-list omits each indication as to which music is played at which instrument. I have added that information in the list of pieces below this review. The pieces that are undoubtedly written for the harpsichord, are played on the Blanchet. That goes for Purcell's Suite in a minor and his Ground in c minor as well as the three keyboard transcriptions of pieces by Lully, which Jean-Henry d'Anglebert included in his Pieces de clavecin of 1689.

The two suites by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and Nicolas Lebègue respectively are obviously played on the organ. Nivers was one of the main organists of his time; he was also active as a composer and a theorist. In the latter capacity he wrote a dissertation on Gregorian chant. He also published a number of collections with liturgical music. He was organist of Saint Sulpice from the early 1650s until his death. In 1678 he was given one of the four posts as organist of the Chapelle Royale, and in 1681 he succeeded Henry Du Mont as master of music to the Queen. Whereas Nivers was born into a family which belonged to the highest echelons of society, Lebègue was of humble origin and born in Laon. He made a name for himself rather quickly: in 1661 he was called 'the famous organist from Paris'. In 1678 he joined Nivers as one of the organists of the Chapelle Royale. The suites of both composers were intended for liturgical use. As was common in French organ music, many sections indicate the registration that should be used, such as récit de cormhorne and basse de trompette.

These indications refer to the specific features of the classical French organ, of which the instrument in the Chapelle Royale is a specimen. And that raises a question with regard to the performance of the English items. In the Voluntary in G by Purcell Constance Taillard avoids the typical colours of the French organ, but in the other pieces, such as Purcell's Voluntary for double organ she uses them, and the result is very likely something Purcell could not have imagined.

The performance of pieces from Purcell's theatrical works is an entirely different matter. As we have seen, d'Anglebert transcribed instrumental pieces from Lully's operas for harpsichord. The same happened to Purcell: some pieces from his theatrical music were published in transcriptions for harpsichord. From that angle there is nothing against a performer of today doing the same. However, performing them on the organ is a rather unlucky decision. It is true that the organ played a role in secular music, but certainly not church organs. Such instruments were exclusively used in the liturgy. Organ recitals as we know them today were an unknown phenomenon in the 17th century. It was something that was to emerge in the course of the 18th century. In my view a performance of Purcell transcriptions on the harpsichord would have been a far better option.

From a historical angle I cannot avoid expressing my reservations with regard to parts of this recording. That said, I have very much enjoyed Constance Taillard's playing, both on the organ and on the harpsichord. The articulation is excellent, she has a good sense of rhythm and is well aware of the difference between good and bad notes. These are truly speechlike performances. The pieces by Nivers and Lebègue are among the lesser-known parts of classical French organ music. The same goes for the pieces by Louis Couperin, who has left quite a number of organ works, which are seldom performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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