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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Chamber music

[I] "Complete Sonatas"
Les Dominos
Dir: Florence Malgoire
rec: May 2012, Saintes, Abbaye aus Dames
Ricercar - RIC 330 (© 2012) (69'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

L'Astrée in g minor; La Convalescente in d minor; La Pucelle in e minor; La Steinquerque in B flat; La Sultane in d minor; La Superbe in A; La Visionnaire in c minor

Serge Saïta, Amélie Michel, transverse flute; Florence Malgoire, Stéphanie de Failly, violin; Guido Balestracci, Isabelle Saint Yves, viola da gamba; Jonathan Rubin, theorbo; Blandine Rannou, harpsichord

[II] Les Nations
Les Ombres
Dir: Margaux Blanchard, Sylvain Sartre
Benjamin Alard, organa
rec: April 1 - 9, 2012, Lyon, Temple Lanterne; June 6, 2012, Dieppe, Eglise Saint-Rémya
Editions Ambronay - AMY035 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (1.45'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Aria in F (BWV 587)a; François COUPERIN: 1er Ordre: La Françoise in e minor [1]; 2e Ordre: L'Espagnole in in c minor [1]; 3e Ordre: L'Impériale in d minor [1]; 4e Ordre: La Piémontoise in g minor [1]

Source: [1] Les Nations: Sonades et Suites de Simphonies en Trio, 1726

Sylvain Sartre, Sarah van Cornewal, transverse flute; Johanne Maitre, Katharina Andres, oboe; Mélanie Flahaut, bassoon; Katharina Heutjer, Marie Rouquié, Louis Creac'h, violin; Margaux Blanchard, viola da gamba; Vincent Flückiger, archlute, theorbo, guitar; Nadja Lesaulnier, harpsichord

In the 1690s François Couperin came under the spell of Italian music. He was in particular impressed by the compositions by Arcangelo Corelli. However, as many French music lovers were vehemently opposed to anything Italian in music he didn't dare to present them as compositions from his pen. He composed seven sonatas in the Italian style: six trio sonatas and one quartet. These are recorded complete by Les Dominos. Those who know their Couperin will miss L'Impériale and wonder why they never have heard of a sonata called La Convalescente. That is explained in the booklet, although the information could have been more detailed.

Only recently a manuscript of La Convalescente has been discovered in Dresden; it is a copy by Johann Georg Pisendel, the star violinist of the Dresden court chapel in the first half of the 18th century. It is the original version of L'Impériale which is the opening of the 3e Ordre from Les Nations. The latter collection - recorded complete by Les Ombres - was published in 1726 with four Ordres. Each of them comprised a trio sonata (sonade) in Italian style and a suite of French dances. Until the rediscovery of La Convalescente it was assumed that the trio sonata which opens the 3e Ordre was especially written for this publication. It was known that the trio sonatas of the other Ordres were reworkings of three pieces from the 1690s. La Pucelle was included in the 1er Ordre and called La Françoise, La Visionnaire received the title of L'Espagnole and found its way into the 2e Ordre, whereas the 4e Ordre opened with L'Astrée, now with the name of La Piémontoise. The combination of an Italian trio sonata and a French dance suite reflects Couperin's ideal of the goûts réünis (the union of tastes) which he had already used as the title of a collection of instrumental pieces printed in 1724.

The performances reviewed here are quite different. That is partly due to the time the music was written or published. That especially regards the scoring. Couperin didn't indicate which instruments should play the two upper parts. Les Dominos has opted for violins and transverse flutes. Those were the instruments mostly used in chamber music in the late 17th century. Les Ombres also uses oboes, whereas a bassoon participates in the basso continuo, in alternation with the viola da gamba. This practice can be justified by the fact that at the time of publication those instruments had made their way into the realm of chamber music. In the 17th century they were mostly used in outdoor performances and were also part of the opera orchestra; the oboes often played colla parte with the violins.

It is not only the scoring which makes the difference. It is interesting to see how various interpreters assess these works and the consequences for the interpretation. Most consider Les Nations as rather modern and forward-looking. In their programme-notes Margaux Blanchard and Sylvain Sartre (Les Ombres) even see historical and political connotations. "Going far beyond a theoretical principle, he [Couperin] is thinking here of the very evolution of French music, an invitation proffered to the great Italian masters (but also those of Germany, England, Spain), a symbol of open frontiers, of hybridisation, which does not evade the issue of arrangements and other compromises. This is a new way of looking at France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. In a word, the idea of Europe is born".

Reinhard Goebel, on the other hand, considered Les Nations as rather old-fashioned, as he expressed in the liner-notes to the recording by his ensemble Musica antiqua Köln (Archiv, 1983). He asks why Couperin chose to publish "a work in what was by that time a completely outmoded form, especially as he stated in the preface that the sonatas (...) were to be understood merely as introductions to the suites". He then states: "Les Nations may, therefore, be regarded as Couperin's tribute to the style classique of the 17th century: highly refined, stylized chamber music which does not enter the sphere of absolute instrumental music such as had become familiar, in a specifically French form, since 1723 at the latest with the appearance of Jean-Marie Leclair's first volume of sonatas." He mentions discrétion, beauté and délicatesse as features of these works, in opposition to the "excesses of virtuosity" which were characteristic of the Italian music performed at the Concert Spirituel at that time.

Goebel took the consequence by scoring the sonatas with violins and transverse flutes, just like Les Dominos scores the original trio sonatas. As we have seen Les Ombres has opted for a more varied scoring. At the same time the style of playing of Les Ombres is pretty close to Goebel's characteristics: discreet, beautiful and delicate. The ensemble plays well and I have certainly enjoyed this recording. Even so I could imagine a more engaging, more daring and contrasty performance, such as the one by Musica ad Rhenum (Brilliant Classics, 2004). They also use generally faster tempi, "based on contemporary metronome indications for French dance and theatre music", as their director, Jed Wentz, claims in his liner-notes. This is a subject which definitely deserves more research. Musica antiqua Köln's tempi are also usually faster than those of Les Ombres.
The second disc ends with a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, played by Benjamin Alard at the organ. The Aria in F (BWV 587) is an arrangement of the légèrement from the sonata in L'Impériale. Unfortunately it is in the same track as the last movement of La Piémontoise. It starts at 2:43 of that track (17).

Les Dominos underline the Italian character of the trio sonatas as they were written in the 1690s. The contrasts between the slow and the fast movements is emphasized and there is a strong dynamic shading within the various movements. The slow movements are performed with much Italian pathos and the fast movements with panache and technical brilliance.

Obviously the two recordings can only be compared in some respects as the repertoire isn't exactly the same and the instrumental scoring is partly different. That said, the recording by Les Dominos has captivated me more than that by Les Ombres. If you want to know how Les Dominos play Couperin, I recommend listening to La Steinkerque, one of the most brilliant pieces on their disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Les Ombres

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