musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Jacques DUPHLY & Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE: Pièces de clavecin

[I] Jacques DUPHLY (1715 - 1789): "Pièces de clavecin - Harpsichord pieces"
Christophe Rousset, harpsichord
rec: Oct 18, 2011, Paris, Banque de France (Galerie dorée)
Aparté - AP043 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.07'35")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Pièces de clavecin, 1744 (Allemande in c minor; Allemande in d minor; Courante in d minor; La Boucon, courante; La Cazamajor; La Milettina; La Tribolet; La Vanlo; Rondeau; Rondeau in C; Rondeau in d minor); Second livre de pièces de clavecin, 1748 (La D'Héricourt; La Damanzy; La Felix; La de Vatre; La Lanza; Les Colombes); Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1756 (Chaconne in F; La de Chamlay; La de Guyon; La Forqueray; Les Grâces; Médée); Quatrième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1768 (La de Drummond; La du Buq; La Pothoüin, rondeau; La Victoire)

[II] Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1724 - 1799): Pièces de clavecin, 1759
Korneel Bernolet, harpsichord
rec: Nov 19 - 21, 2012, St Truiden, Academiezaal
Aliud - ACD BE 066-2 (© 2013) (74'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N
Cover & track-list

The two composers to whom the present discs are devoted are representatives of the last stage of the French harpsichord school whose foundation was laid by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/02-1672). They were contemporaries and Balbastre's first book of harpsichord pieces was printed two years before Duphly's third book. There are some similarities but also clear differences and Balbastre is stylistically more forward-looking than Duphly who is more rooted in the tradition of French harpsichord music. Both were also educated as organists, but whereas Balbastre acted as such during his whole career Duphly decided to switch to the harpsichord.

Duphly was born in Rouen and was educated by the Cathedral's organist François d'Agincourt. In 1732 he became organist of the Cathedral in Evreux, and moved to Saint-Eloi in Rouen two years later. In 1740 he was appointed organist of Notre-Dame-de-la-Ronde in the same town, but left his job two years later. He settled in Paris where he concentrated on the harpsichord. There is no sign of him taking any official job. He probably made a living as a teacher among the upper echelons of society. Contemporaries state that he was one of the greatest keyboard players of his time, alongside Rameau and Balbastre. In the last decades of his life he led more or less a secluded life, and soon he was almost forgotten.

Four books with harpsichord pieces were printed between 1744 and 1768. The first is undated, but was announced in a newspaper in February 1744. It is dedicated to Louis de Noailles, Duc d'Ayen, not only a lover of music to whom several composers dedicated works, but also a singer. It comprises fifteen pieces, divided into two suites, in the keys of D and C major/minor. About half of them are character pieces; the others bear the names of dances (two allemandes, a courante and a menuet). However, some character pieces are in fact also dances, for instance La Boucon which is another courante. In addition there are some rondeaux and a légèrement. The second book was printed in 1748, according to an announcement in a newspaper in October of that year. It was dedicated "A Madame Victoire de France", daughter of King Louis XV. It includes fourteen pieces, almost all of them character pieces, with only two dances (pairs of gavottes and menuets). They are grouped together according to key (D, A, E, G). For the first time Duphly adds indications for the performance, such as vivement or noblement. There is also an increase in virtuosity, reflecting the influence of the Italian style, but also that of Rameau. In 1758 the third book was printed, again undated but announced in a newspaper in January of that year. It contains eleven pieces: nine character pieces, two pairs of menuets and a chaconne. Six of the pieces in this book have a part for violin ad libitum which was becoming quite a popular genre at the time. This book also shows the influence of the galant style which was increasingly popular at the time. The fourth and last book is again undated, but was announced in July 1768. It includes only six pieces, and these are all character pieces.

Such pieces were very popular at the time, and François Couperin was one of the first to introduce them into his harpsichord books. Some describe human characters or emotions, others refer to specific personalities from public and artistic life, mostly from the direct environment of the composer. This way it is possible to get more information about the circles in which a composer moved. However, it is not always possible to identify with absolute certainty the characters which the titles of the pieces refer to. For instance, according to Christophe Rousset, La Vanlo refers to the painter Carle Van Loo. John Paul, in the liner-notes to his recording of Duphly's complete harpsichord works (Lyrichord, 2005), believes it refers to the painter's wife, Christine Somis, a singer and the daughter of the violinist Giovanni Battista Somis.

Rather than recording the fourth books complete Christophe Rousset has made a choice from them. That choice is quite representative as the programme includes pieces of various kinds. Médée is, as the name suggests, a theatrical piece, Les Grâces is virtually the opposite - Duphly aims at a maximum of expression which Rousset underlines by a very slow tempo. In La Felix the lower part of the harpsichord's compass is explored, whereas in La Lanza the upper part dominates. La de Drummond is from the fourth book and the first in which Duphly makes use of the Alberti bass. Several pieces include virtuosic figurations and arpeggios or require hand-crossing. Rousset delivers very fine performances which makes one regret that he did only record a selection. That is even more the case as he uses a splendid harpsichord built in 1776 by Christian Kroll. The combination of interpretation and instrument convincingly reveals the musical qualities of Jacques Duphly who is - as Rousset states - more or less underestimated.

Like Duphly Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was educated as an organist. He was born in Dijon and received lessons from Claude Rameau, Jean-Philippe's younger brother. Later he succeeded him as organist of Saint-Etienne in Dijon. In 1750 he settled in Paris where he took composition lessons from Jean-Philippe. In 1759 the first book with harpsichord pieces was printed; it is the only of its kind which has come down to us. In 1770 a collection of four suites of Noëls for harpsichord or organ was printed, and in 1779 a set of quartets for keyboard and instruments. It is known that in later years he often improvised at the organ, and even in church he played opera transcriptions. This has contributed to the not always positive reception of his oeuvre. He is often considered a representative of the decline of the French harpsichord school. The harpsichord pieces published in 1759 certainly give reason for that: some tend to be a little trivial and too much focussed on virtuosity. To what extent one appreciates his music is probably a matter of taste. Personally I prefer Duphly over Balbastre any time, but there are certainly also pieces which are very enjoyable.

The book includes seventeen pieces which seem to be divided into two suites, as La De Caze and La Lamarck have the addition ouverture. However, there is no reference to suites. The first eight pieces are in C major and minor, but the nine pieces of the second half are in five different keys. It is telling that none of them carries the title of a dance; these are all character pieces. The first, La De Caze, refers to Madame de Caze, his pupil, to whom he dedicated this book. She was also the wife of his patron, the farmer-general Anne Nicolas Robert de Caze.

There is no lack of recordings of this book. Korneel Bernolet is a young Belgian harpsichordist who has earned the praise of artists such as Sigiswald Kuijken and is considered a brilliant player. That is certainly confirmed by this disc which impressively demonstrates his technical skills. That said, I am not quite satisfied with the interpretation. I had the impression that he takes rather swift tempi, and comparisons with other recordings seem to confirm this. That in itself doesn't speak against his interpretation but I feel that as a result some pieces, especially the more introspective, lack depth and tend to be a little superficial. Bernolet also plays a bit too straightforward: some breathing spaces between phrases would have given the performances more profile and made them more speech-like. In many pieces there are a lot of notes anyway, and a stronger differentiation would have done them some good. The virtuosic pieces come off best. The harpsichord played here is one of this recording's assets: a copy of an instrument of 1736 by Jean-Henri Hemsch, today preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Korneel Bernolet
Christophe Rousset

CD Reviews