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"Flamboyant bien-aimé - The harpsichord of Louis XV"

Clément Geoffroy, harpsichord

rec: Oct 16 - 19, 2022, Versailles, Chapelle du Petit Trianon
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS108 (© 2023) (69'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1725-1799): Contredanse de Pygmalion [1]; Gavottes de Mr. Rebel [1]; Bernard DE BURY (1720-1785): Chaconne [5]; Menuet I. Zephir & Menuet II. Flore [5]; Sarabande. La *** ou Les Sentimens [5]; Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): Les Étoiles [4]; Gabriel DUBUISSON (c1716-1754): Première Suite (prélude) [3]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La De Vaucanson [9]; La Du Buque [9]; La Pothoüin [9]; Première suite (rondeau) [6]; Jean-Baptiste-Antoine FORQUERAY (1699-1782): La Angrave [8]; Charles NOBLET (1715-1769): Allemande [10]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): La Dauphine; Les Cyclopes [2]; Les Tendres Plaintes [2]; Musette en rondeau [2]; Tambourin [2]; Joseph Nicolas Pancrace ROYER (1703-1755): L'Aimable [7]; La marche des Scythes [7]

Sources: [1] Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Recueil d'airs choisis de plusieurs opéras accommodés pour le clavecin, n.d.; [2] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode pour la mécanique des doigts, 1724; [3] Gabriel Dubuisson, Pièces de clavecin, 1732; [4] Michel Corrette, Premier livre de pièces pour clavecin, 1734; [5] Bernard de Bury, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1737; [6] Jacques Duphly, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1744; [7] Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1746; [8] Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray, Pièces de viole mises en pièces de clavecin, 1747; [9] Jacques Duphly, Second livre de pièces de clavecin, 1748; [10] Charles Noblet, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1756; [11] Jacques Duphly, IVème livre de pièces de clavecin, 1768

Marie-Luise Werneburg, Mark Williams, discantus; Marnix De Cat, altus;

In the second half of the 17th century, one of the most revered instruments in France, the lute, gradually made way for the harpsichord. The first phase in the history of French harpsichord music found its culmination in the oeuvre of François Couperin. One of the features of his oeuvre were the character pieces, which became more important than the dances, which were the main elements in harpsichord suites of the past. In his liner-notes, Clément Geoffroy states that Couperin "brought to its peak the art of portraiture, of the lacy miniature, of the beautiful and touching, of pastel shades and of that famous bon goût ('good taste')."

The great innovator in matters of playing technique was Jean-Philippe Rameau, which he showed in his Pièces de clavessin avec un méthode pour la mécanique des doigts of 1724. Bertrand Poirot mentions his piece Les Cyclopes as a demonstration of what was new: "Les Cyclopes is the most dazzling example with its batteries: fingerings where the hand turns over the thumb, playing lively arpeggios, repeated note passages alternately with both hands, and finally crossings of the hands." He had a lasting influence on the development of French harpsichord music in the next decades. That justifies the title of this disc, as the composers included in the programme worked under the reign of Louis XV.

Geoffroy states that he focuses on the music of the 'Ramists'. They "advocate a certain inebriety, even an assumed nonchalance. Their harpsichord crackles and rumbles, but also sings, in lengthy melodies charged with feeling. It is no longer a harpsichord, it is a flute, a violin, a horn or a drum, probably all at once, in what is already its swan song." However, traditions don't die quickly, and therefore in his programme we find pieces in the 'new style' alongside pieces which show the influence of Couperin. Geoffroy has constructed the programme in such a way that the contrasts are clearly exposed.

Take La Vaucanson from the fourth book by Jacques Duphly, which includes scales, arpeggios and octave passages in the left hand. It is followed by a rondeau from his first book, which reflects the elegance which is one of the hallmarks of Couperin's oeuvre. Contrasts like this can even be found within a single book, such as the Premier Livre de pièces pour clavecin of 1746 by Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer. Here we find an elegant character piece as L'Aimable, but also La marche des Scythes, a noisy and dramatic transcription of an instrumental piece from his own opera Zaïde.

There are more such transcriptions, for instance by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, after Rebel (probably François, 1701-1775) and Rameau. The programme ends with Balbastre's transcription of the contredanse from Rameau's Pygmalion. Opera transcriptions had a long tradition in France: Jean-Henry d'Anglebert was the first who transcribed opera pieces for harpsichord. These were all taken from operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the dominant opera composer of his time. These pieces are very different from the transcriptions included here, and that can be explained by the stylistic developments in the opera. There are strong differences between the operas of Lully and those of Rameau. The latter's harpsichord works have often dramatic traits. The Musette en rondeau and the Tambourin from the book of 1724 later appear in his operas in transcriptions for orchestra. This way he turned the tradition upside down. These pieces show that he was a man of the theatre from early on, long before he actually started to compose operas.

Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray published his father's works for the viola da gamba in harpsichord transcriptions, and added some original pieces of his own pen. He did not have any connection to opera, but La Angrave is a dramatic piece which shows the influence of opera. In a way, it is in line with his father's style, as the latter included the influences of the Italian style in his gamba pieces.

The core of this recording are pieces by some of the best-known composers of the time: Rameau, Duphly, Forqueray, Balbastre. It is nice that there are also some pieces by composers whose music is seldom performed. The programme opens with a piece by Gabriel Dubuisson, whose book of harpsichord pieces has been discovered recently. New Grove does not mention him, and the booklet does not give any information about him. His prélude goes back to a tradition of the 17th century: the writing of preludes without measures (préludes non mesurés). Another little-known master is Bernard de Bury, who wrote some music for the stage, a few other vocal works and one book with harpsichord pieces, which show the influence of Couperin; the two pieces included here bear witness to that. Even lesser-known is Charles Noblet: like many harpsichord masters, he was educated at the organ and worked as organist for most of his life in several churches. At the same time he played the harpsichord in the Opéra for more than thirty years.

Michel Corrette was one of the most prominent composers of his time. Like his colleague Boismortier he wrote music for all sorts of instruments and instrumental combinations, and also published methods for various instruments. His oeuvre includes pieces for organ and for harpsichord. Les Étoiles is a nice piece which evokes the twinkling of the stars by exploring the upper register of the harpsichord. (By the way: it is a shame that the English translation of the liner-notes does not include translations of the titles of pieces, unlike the German version.)

This disc is a nice bouquet of keyboard pieces of different character, showing how tradition and innovation went hand in hand. As I wrote, the programme has been cleverly structured, which guarantees an optimum variety. With all due respect to the composers who wrote in the 'new style': not everyone wants to listen to often pretty noisy and dramatic pieces with percussionistic elements for more than an hour. The elegant pieces à la Couperin are welcome breathing spaces.

It is also thanks to Clément Geoffroy and his harpsichord that this is a compelling recital. Geoffroy knows exactly how to approach each piece. The more lyrical and traditional pieces are played with elegance and refinement, the more extroverted and dramatic items with aplomb and guts. The harpsichord is a copy of a harpsichord by Jean-Claude Goujon, dated before 1749. Its two manuals allow to create contrasts within a piece, from which especially the more dramatic items take advantage.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Clément Geoffroy

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