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CD reviews

French harpsichord music of the 18th century

[I] "Les Sauvages"
Béatrice Martin, harpsichord
rec: Nov 2012, Les Marêts (F), Église Saint-Hubert
Cypres - CYP1672 (© 2015) (61'02")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1629-1691): Passacaille d'Armide [1]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 27e Ordre in b minor [3]; Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745) / Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY (1699-1782): 1e Suite in d minor (La Portugaise; La Couperin) [5]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): L'Égyptienne; L'Enharmonique; Les Sauvages; Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace ROYER (1705-1755): Allemande [4]; La Marche des Scythes [4]; La Sensible [4]

Sources: [1] Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, Pièces de clavecin, 1689; [2] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, 1728; [3] François Couperin, Quatrième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1730; [4] Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, Pièces de clavecin, 1746; [5] Antoine/Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, Pièces de viole composées par Mr Forqueray le père mises en pièces de clavecin, 1747

[II] Antoine & Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY: "La Famille Forqueray - Portrait(s)"
Justin Taylor, harpsichord
rec: March 13 - 16, 2016, Paris, Notre Dame de Bon Secours
Alpha - 247 (© 2016) (79'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

François COUPERIN: 17e Ordre in e minor (La Superbe ou La Forqueray) [1]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La Forqueray [3]; Antoine FORQUERAY: [Allemande]; Courante; Prélude non mesuré in d minor; Sarabande; Antoine FORQUERAY / Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY: 1e Suite in d minor [2]; 5e Suite in c minor [2]

Sources: [1] François Couperin, Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1722; [2] Antoine/Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, Pièces de viole composées par Mr Forqueray le père mises en pièces de clavecin, 1747; [3] Jacques Duphly, Troisème livre de pièces de clavecin, 1756

"Les sauvages" - the name of a piece from Jean-Philippe Rameau's collection of keyboard music of 1728 - is a good title for a disc with French harpsichord music of the 18th century. It means "the wild ones" and brings together several features of French music of that time. It is connected to the theatre, it is a character piece and it reflects the fascination of the French with everything exotic.

The French harpsichord school came into existence in the mid-17th century. Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/02-1672) is considered its father; he published his keyboard works in 1670. The largest part of his keyboard oeuvre consists of dances; the harpsichord music of the time was strongly influenced by the style of composing for the lute (style brisée). In comparison the music recorded by Béatrice Martin and Justin Taylor is very different.

Although composers of the first half of the 18th century still composed dances for the keyboard, the character piece became increasingly popular. In the oeuvre of François Couperin this can be clearly observed. Whereas the first book comprises a substantial number of dances, there are relatively few in the second book, and the two last books hardly include any dances. The dominance of the character piece became a feature of French keyboard music from the second quarter of the 18th century onwards.

Another feature is the connection to the theatre. That is most obvious in the harpsichord oeuvre of Rameau. He is best known for his operas, but he composed his first work for the theatre when he was already 50 years of age. Before he had published several collections of harpsichord music which comprise a number of character pieces. He later included several of these in his operas, but even in their first conception they were already quite theatrical in nature. It seems that Rameau always had an instinct for the theatre and that it only took some time before he was able or willing to explore it in the form of operas.

Other composers also composed pieces connected to the theatre, but they followed the opposite route. Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer published his Pièces de clavecin in 1746; it includes two pieces which are taken from his own theatrical works. The Allemande is from Le pouvoir de l'amour, a ballet héroïque first performed in 1743. La Marche des Scythes is taken from his first ballet héroïque, performed in 1739: Zaïde, reine de Grenade. The connection of harpsichord music with the theatre was not a new development, and Rameau did not invent it. The first composer who turned to the theatre for inspiration was Jean-Henry d'Anglebert. In his time the operatic scene was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully who - himself of Italian birth - made it the core of his activities to develop a true French style, that would surpass the Italian taste, which was not appreciated in France. However, the increasing theatrical character of keyboard music was certainly due to the growing influence of Italian music after the turn of the century. François Couperin was one of the first who incorporated elements of the Italian style in his oeuvre, and later composers as Jean-Marie Leclair and Jean Barrière adopted the Italian style in their sonatas for violin and for cello respectively. As Italian music was theatrical by nature, French music also became more dramatic and spectacular.

The latter comes to the fore in the harpsichord oeuvre of Rameau and Royer, but also in the pieces which Jean-Baptiste Forqueray published under the name of his father, Antoine. There has been considerable doubt about whether the latter was indeed the composer of the five books with pieces which were printed in two editions: one for viola da gamba and bc and one for harpsichord solo. The latter pretended to be transcriptions of the former, but there have been suspicions that Jean-Baptiste may have been the composer of the viola da gamba pieces as well. Whether the question of their authorship will ever be solved is doubtful. Justin Taylor, in the liner-notes to his recording of two suites and some other pieces by Forqueray or devoted to him, casts much doubt about Antoine's authorship, but the issue is not mentioned by Gilles Ricot in the booklet to Béatrice Martin's disc. The latter calls Royer's La Marche des Scythes a "bravura" piece, and the same can be said about La Portugaise from Forqueray's Suite in d minor. Royer, in the preface to his book with harpsichord music, called such pieces "tumultuous". This was very much a feature of French harpsichord music of the time, which we also find in the oeuvre of Jacques Duphly and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre.

In the first paragraph I mentioned another interesting aspect of French music, and of French culture and society in general: the fascination for everything exotic. Ricot sums it up thus: "Exoticism is a strongly embedded feature of artistic creation in France in the eighteenth century, in areas as varied as the decorative arts, literature and architecture. From the 'curiosity cabinets' that incongruously stacked up all manner of strange and exotic objects to products imported from the far corners of the globe by commercial or religious companies, via the exhibition of 'naturals' from the Americas such as those described by Montaigne, everything is part of this response to the aristocracy's infatuation for the extraordinary, the unusual, for a taste of the foreign." Jean-Jacques Rousseau minted the concept of the "noble savage" ("bon sauvage"). Rameau's opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes is a clear product of this fascination. The same goes for Royer's La Marche des Scythes and Couperin's Les Chinois from his 27e Ordre. However, as Ricot rightly emphasizes, such pieces don't make any serious attempt to depict the music of "the wild ones": "Here there is no ethnomusicological research or break up of the circle of the Occident, rather a musical imagination that will draw its inspiration from stock images of fabulous countries while keeping in perfect accord with the aesthetic canons of the period."

Both discs reviewed here are most interesting in their very own way. Béatrice Martin has recorded a recital in which the various features of French harpsichord music are represented. We hear both theatrical and often "tumultuous" pieces, but also more lyrical stuff. Although she focuses on the 18th century, she included the Passacaille d'Armide by d'Anglebert. This not only represents an early specimen of a piece, based on music for the theatre (Lully's tragédie lyrique Armide of 1686), but also the tradition of including a passacaille or chaconne in every work for the music theatre. It was usually played towards the end of an opera. The programme has been well put together; it is a compelling sequence of highlights from the repertoire. Martin plays a magnificent instrument, built by Ioannes Couchet (Antwerp, c1645), which was extended by Nicolas and François-Etienne Blanchet around 1720 (called a grand ravalement). She successfully explores its features in the interest of the music she has selected.

The harpsichord works of Forqueray - whether the father or the son - are pretty well known and there is no lack of recordings. From that perspective it may seem a little odd that Justin Taylor chose him for his first recording, which is the result of his winning the First Prize at the International Musica Antiqua Harpsichord Competition in Bruges. However, his concept is certainly interesting. He plays two of the suites complete, but adds character pieces which two of his colleagues, François Couperin and Jacques Duphly, devoted to him. Probably even more interesting are the three pieces which are definitely from the pen of Antoine. An Allemande, a Courante and a Sarabande for three viole da gamba which have been preserved in manuscript are performed here - put together in the form of a short suite - in his own transcription for harpsichord. Here he takes Jean-Baptiste's transcriptions as his model.

But obviously this disc's raison d'être is first and foremost to present Taylor to a wider audience. For me this was the first acquaintance with this young French artist, and I am impressed by his technical skills and his qualities in the field of interpretation. His performances are full of bounce and often outright exciting. The brilliance of many pieces is not lost on him: Forqueray's self-portrait (La Forqueray from the Suite in d minor) is a perfect example, as is La Boisson from the Suite in c minor. But the lyrical pieces come off equally well, such as La Cottin from the Suite in d minor. The latter suite includes the two pieces also performed by Béatrice Martin. In La Couperin his tempo is a little slower, in La Portugaise he takes a faster tempo. This seems not a matter of 'right' or 'wrong'; I like both performances. In some cases Taylor's tempo is probably a bit too fast; for instance, in Jupiter, which closes the Suite in c minor, it goes at the cost of a clear articulation. He also tends to over-ornament, as in La Couperin. But that may well be a matter of taste.

I recommend both discs, and I am sure that we will hear much more from Justin Taylor in the years to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Béatrice Martin
Justin Taylor

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