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"Bach - Couperin"

Jean-Luc Ho, harpsichord

rec: April 27 - 29, 2011, Lévis-Saint-Nom (Yvelines), Eglise de Lévis
Encelade - ECL 1101 (© 2011) (61'56")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list
Score BWV 831
Score Couperin

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ouvertüre nach französischer Art in b minor (BWV 831) [2]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 8e Ordre in b minor [1]

Sources: [1] François Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin< 1716/17; [2] Johann Sebastian Bach, Clavier-Übung, II, 1735

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the many German composers who advocated the "mixed taste", the combination of the French and the Italian style. Some of his compositions bear witness to his interest in Italian music, especially the concertos and the cantatas. In his keyboard music the influence of the French style is especially evident, for instance in the form of the suite. It therefore makes sense to bring together one of Bach's suites and a suite by one of the most prominent representatives of French keyboard music, François Couperin.

The latter published four books with harpsichord pieces, in 1713, 1716, 1722 and 1730. They reflect the development in French keyboard music, away from the suite with its conventional sequence of dances, towards a series of character pieces. The various suites - or ordres, as Couperin called them - are quite different in this respect. The second book includes seven ordres which almost entirely consist of character pieces, with the exception of the 8e Ordre. It is one of the most traditional suites in that only two of the pieces omit the name of a dance: the opening La Raphaéle and the concluding La Morinéte. The second piece is called L'Ausoniéne, but that title is preceded by the name of a dance: allemande. The sarabande has also an additional title: L'Unique. The difference between this suite and the other suites in Couperin's four harpsichord books should not be exaggerated, though. Many character pieces have the rhythms of then common dances. They reflect a difference in focus: "Each piece I have composed has a purpose (...). The titles are a reflection of the ideas I had at the time", Couperin stated.

Bach never made use of character pieces, although he knew and appreciated Couperin's oeuvre. It was especially during his formative years that he studied French keyboard works and copied some of them. In his many suites he shows his admiration for the music he had become acquainted with. Among them are the so-called French and English suites. He follows the same pattern in the six partitas which he included in the first part of his Clavier-Übung. The second part comprises two different pieces, reflecting his advocacy of the mixed taste: the so-called Italian concerto and the French Overture. In the former he transfers the Italian instrumental concerto to the harpsichord, the second is a tribute to the French style. However, the closing 'echo' is more Italian in character than French. The suite opens with an overture which is followed by dances. Bach doesn't follow the sequence which was common in the traditional suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. The allemande is omitted; the ouverture is immediately followed by a courante. Then we get two pairs of gavottes and passepieds respectively. These dances were associated with the galant idiom; another such dance, the bourrée - again in a pair - follows the sarabande.

One of the most notable features of this recording reveals itself if one looks at the track-list: the opening ouverture of Bach's suite in French style takes 12 minutes, longer than any performance I know. This is not the result of Ho playing in a very slow tempo but rather in the number of repeats. The overture is in three sections: ABA, slow-fast-slow. After the third section Jean-Luc Ho repeats the B section, and then we get the A section a third time. This is common practice in performances of orchestral suites which were so popular in Germany in Bach's time. Especially Bach's four overtures (BWV 1066-1069) are usually played this way, but there are also recordings of orchestral suites by the likes of Telemann and Fasch in which the B section is not repeated. Apparently performers interpret the repeat indications by composers quite differently. When this review was published on MusicWeb International I received an e-mail from a reader who mentioned several recordings where the B-section is also repeated, some on piano and one on harpsichord, by Paul Parsons.

Considering the fact that it is so seldom practised I had expected this issue being discussed in the liner-notes, but that is not the case. According to my correspondent the edition of 1735 indicates a double repeat. I have checked the score, but I am still not sure. Anyway, it is good that Ho has followed his own view rather than follow what seems common habit.

However, as a consequence the overture takes much time, and that is a bit of a problem if the performance isn't very compelling. That is exactly the case here, I am afraid. The B part comes off rather well, but the A sections are a little ponderous and awkward. In a way that is an omen of what is to come. Ho tends to take rather swift tempi as I concluded from comparisons with other recordings - among others Pieter-Jan Belder (Brilliant Classics) and Pascal Dubreuil (Ramée) - but the main problem is the lack of differentation. He doesn't articulate particularly well and makes too little distinction between the good and the bad notes. As a result his performances lack profile and sound a bit rushed. Most serious is that the rhythms are often rather unclear. The most striking example is the second bourrée from Bach's suite: the rhythm is hardly recognizable. Ho doesn't take enough breathing spaces; he just goes on and on. Even between phrases he hardly draws breath. For this reason these performances are not very speech-like. The highlight of Couperin's suite is the passacaille, a brilliant piece in several sections with the opening section returning as a refrain. The different sections are not clearly marked and the whole piece passes by as an endless, rather unstructured wave. Michael Borgstede, in his complete recording of Couperin's harpsichord music (Brilliant Classics, 2005), shows that there are better ways to make this piece blossom. The 'echo' which concludes Bach's suite has little elasticity. Belder is far more convincing.

As interesting as the confrontation between Bach and Couperin may be this disc leaves me unsatisfied.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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