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CD reviews

French harpsichord music under the ancien régime

[I] "Music from the age of Louis XIV"
John Kitchen, harpsichord
rec: Jan 9 - 10, 2010, Edinburgh, St Cecilia's Hall
Delphian - DCD34109 (© 2013) (77'34")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1635-1691): Chaconne de Phaeton (after Jean-Baptiste Lully) [2]; Les songes agréable d'Atys (after Jean-Baptiste Lully) [2]; Menuet Dans nos bois (after Jean-Baptiste Lully) [2]; Menuet La Jeune Iris (after Jean-Baptiste Lully) [2]; Tombeau de M. de Chambonnières [2]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 3e Ordre in c minor (allemande La Ténébreuse; seconde courante; sarabande La Lugubre; Les Laurentines; La Lutine) [4]; Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661): Pavanne in f sharp minor (BG 120); Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729): Suite in F [1]; Louis MARCHAND (1667-1723): Suite No. 1 in d minor [3]

Sources: [1] Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Pièces de clavessin, 1687; [2] Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, Pieces de clavecin, 1689; [3] Louis Marchand, Pièces de clavecin, Livre premier, 1699; [4] François Couperin, Pieces de clavecin, premier livre, 1713

[II] "Music from the age of Louis XV"
John Kitchen, harpsichord
rec: April 11 - 12, 2012, Edinburgh, St Cecilia's Hall
Delphian - DCD34112 (© 2012) (66'26")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 6e Ordre in B flat [5]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La Forqueray [8]; Médée [8]; Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745) (attr): Suite No. 2 in G (La Du Breüil; La Leclair) [7]; Suite No. 5 in c minor (La Léon; La Boisson) [7]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Fanfarinette [6]; L'Egiptienne [6]; L'Enharmonique [6]; La Triomphante [6]; Les Sauvages [6]

Sources: [5] François Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, 1717; [6] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, 1728; [7] Antoine Forqueray, Pieces de Viole, Composées par Mr Forqueray Le Pere, Mises en Pieces de Clavecin par Mr Forqueray Le Fils , 1747; [8] Jacques Duphly, Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1756

Since the second half of the 17th century the harpsichord was one of the main instruments in France, alongside the viola da gamba. It gradually overshadowed the lute, adopting several features of lute music in the process. In the 18th century a large amount of harpsichord music was composed and often printed, reflecting the popularity of the instrument among amateurs.

These two discs document the development of French keyboard music during the second half of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century. The first disc focuses on the second stage in the history of the French harpsichord school of which Jacques Champion de Champonnières is considered the founder. He is represented here through the Tombeau de M. de Chambonnières by one of his pupils, Jean-Henri d'Anglebert. In Chambonnière's oeuvre there are no precisely-structured suites: the interpreter can choose at random from his pièces and put them together into a suite. The same is the case with the works of his pupils d'Anglebert and Louis Couperin. As a result a suite in a particular key by one of these composers can strongly differ from one recording to another. During the second stage the suite takes a more or less standardized texture, and includes the dances we also know from suites for keyboard or for melody instruments from, for instance, Germany: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Other dances could be added and a prélude could open the proceedings.

The suites by Louis Marchand and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre bear witness to that. Marchand begins with a prélude and adds a chaconne, a gavotte and a menuet. He was especially famous as an organist; only two harpsichord suites from his pen have come down to us. Jacquet de la Guerre was a child prodigy on the harpsichord, and performed at the tender age of five at Louis XIV's court. Since then she enjoyed the King's patronage. Her Suite in F begins with a tocade (toccata), the only time a French composer has ever made use of this title. It tells us something about her interest in the Italian style; she was also the first French composer who wrote pieces in the goût réuni, the mixture of French and Italian styles. This tocade is followed by an allemande, two courantes, sarabande and gigue, and closes with a cannaris (canarie) and a menuet.

This disc points already in the direction of the third stage which has two specific features. Firstly, the influence of opera manifests itself. D'Anglebert was the first composer who transcribed pieces from operas for harpsichord. Two specimens are included, from Lully's Atys and Phaëton respectively. He also arranged some of the latter's instrumental works: the two minuets are arrangements of movements from the Trios pour le coucher du Roi. The second feature is the emergence of character pieces which gradually take the place of dances. François Couperin was one of the first who composed such pieces. In his Premier Livre de pièces de clavecin of 1713 both are represented. John Kitchen has selected specimens from the 3e Ordre: a courante, two character pieces and two dances with titles. The latter attest the transition from the one genre to the other.

The second disc is devoted to the third stage and probably also the first symptoms of the fourth and last stage. Kitchen opens with the 6e Ordre from the Second Livre de pièces de clavecin of 1717 by François Couperin. In this book dances are almost completely omitted. There is much speculation about exactly what the various titles mean. For his interpretation John Kitchen made use of a study by Jane Clark, who was able to reveal the meaning of many titles, but there are still some which cannot be interpreted with complete certainty. That is the case, for instance, with Les Baricades Mistérieuses, one of Couperin's best-known pieces.

In the case of Forqueray the identity of the composer himself is a bit of a mystery. Jean-Baptiste published five books under the name of his father Antoine in 1745. They were printed in two versions: one for viola da gamba and basso continuo, the other for harpsichord alone. It has been doubted that these pieces were indeed composed by Antoine, for various reasons, one of them the style which seems out of sync with the time Antoine was active as a gamba virtuoso. Most of Forqueray's pieces are quite virtuosic. One of the most brilliant is La Leclair, certainly a portrait of the famous violinist and composer.

Opera is represented here by Jean-Philippe Rameau. He presented himself as an opera composer when he was already fifty years of age. However, the music he composed before that time shows his theatrical temperament, and that includes his keyboard works. Several pieces later appeared in his operas, such as Les Sauvages which he adapted for orchestra and included in Les Indes galantes. His keyboard music was more virtuosic than was common at the time. He was also active as a theorist, and his views on harmony which he laid down in his treatise Traité de l'harmonie are demonstrated by L'Enharmonique.

The fourth stage in the history of French harpsichord music is considered by scholars as a period of decline. One of the first who is linked to this stage is Jacques Duphly. Kitchen quotes the late Gustav Leonhardt who once stated that "Duphly had few truths to tell the world". Having heard all of Duphly's keyboard works I am not sure whether that judgement is completely fair. The decline of keyboard music is more clearly demonstrated in some of the works of Balbastre, and especially the transcriptions of opera pieces, and perhaps also Royer. Whether one appreciates the depiction of the character of Medea in Médée is a matter of taste; it is quite effective all the same. La Forqueray is one of Duphly's nicest pieces, a tribute to his colleague, whether the elder or the younger.

The raison d'être of these two discs seems to be the instruments John Kitchen plays: two splendid historical harpsichords from the collections housed in St Cecilia's Hall in Edinburgh. The Louis XIV programme is played on an instrument from 1755, built by Luigi Baillon of Cyteux, a rare instrument from outside Paris. It is quite different in sound from better-known French harpsichords, including that of the instrument by Pascal Taskin of 1769 which Kitchen plays in the Louis XV programme. Both instruments may seem a little too late for the repertoire, but in harpsichord building there was far less development than, for instance, in the construction of fortepianos in the late 18th century.

Despite the importance of the harpsichords, these two discs together deliver a highly interesting survey of the developments in French keyboard writing from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century. As far as the repertoire is concerned, the first disc is the most interesting. D'Anglebert, Marchand and Jacquet de la Guerre are not badly represented on disc, but their music is not that frequently performed, certainly not in comparison to the composers represented on the second disc. There lovers of French harpsichord music won't hear anything they haven't heard before. Even so, both discs are well worth purchasing. John Kitchen is a good and sensitive interpreter, although there are some flaws. I am most satisfied with the first disc. The prélude from Marchand's suite is a bit awkward, and I missed some intensity in Louis Couperin's Pavanne in f sharp minor. In the latter the spicy harmonic progressions which result from this rather unusual key come off well.

The second disc includes some theatrical and extraverted pieces, and here I sometimes find Kitchen a little too restrained. That is the case, for instance, in Forqueray's La Leclair. In his liner-notes John Kitchen refers to the 'theatrical gestures' in Rameau's La Triomphante, but in his performance these don't fully come off. Les Sauvages is also a bit too moderate and should have received a more dramatic performance. Couperin, on the other hand, is particularly well played. I like especially Kitchen's subtle interpretation of the notes inégales and the slight tempo fluctuations.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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