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"Manuscrit Bauyn"

Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
rec: April 6-8, 2008, Arossa (Pyrénées Atlantiques), Église de Saint-Martin
Hortus - 065 (© 2008) (56'24")

Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661): Pièces en fa (Suite in F); Pièces en la (Suite in A); Johann Jakob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Allemande (faite à Paris); Gigue (nommée la Rusée Mazarinique); Toccata in D; Toccata in F; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Capriccio in G; Luigi ROSSI (1598-1653): Passacaille

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France contains a manuscript of a little more than 350 compositions written in the 1640s an '50s, mostly for keyboard. It is named 'Manuscrit Bauyn', after André Bauyn de Bersan, the first owner of the manuscript. The largest part contains French music, by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/02-1672) who may be considered the father of the French harpsichord school, and Louis Couperin, whose carreer as a musician was decisively influenced by Chambonnières. The third section contains 15 pieces by French, German, Italian and English composers. Thus the manuscript sheds an interesting light on the connection between French and in particular Italian keyboard music. Froberger was German, of course, but through his training by Frescobaldi his compositions were strongly influenced by the Italian style.

It was in particular after the middle of the 17th century that an antagonism between French and Italian music emerged. But in the first half of the century many music lovers in France greatly appeciated Italian music. In 1605 Giulio Caccini and his family visited Paris and in particular the singing of his daughter Francesca was widely admired. Later on operas by Francesco Cavalli and Luigi Rossi were performed. One of the advocates of Italian music was Cardinal Mazarin, himself of Italian birth. And even when the French started to emphasize the importance of keeping the pure French taste alive there was always an undercurrent of support for Italian music.

One of the main composers of keyboard music after Chambonnières was Louis Couperin. In 1652 Johann Jakob Froberger paid a visit to Paris. He was then at the service of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, but in 1649 the empress died and as a result the musical activities at the court were limited. This could well have been the reason Froberger made a journey through Europe, which brought him as far as London. The contact with Froberger had a considerable influence on Louis Couperin. His préludes non mesurées - which belong to his most famous compositions - are modelled after the toccatas by Froberger. The disc opens with a Suite in A which begins with a 'prélude à l'imitation de M. Froberger'. This superior piece as well as the much shorter prelude of the Suite in F show great similarity to the two Toccatas by Froberger which are also recorded here. They all reflect the stylus phantasticus with its juxtaposition of free, improvisatory and more imitative sections.

The two suites by Louis Couperin don't appear as such in the manuscript. It is up to the interpreter to choose pieces to play in the form of a suite. At the time the form of the suite wasn't fully fixed, but there was a development into a structure which contained the sequence of allemande, courante and sarabande. Those are the heart of the two suites on this disc. Both are introduced by a prelude and in both suite a lighter dance is added: 'la Piémontoise' and 'Branle de Basque' respectively. The Suite in F also contains a chaconne: one of Couperin's best-known pieces, and in my view one of the most beautiful chaconnes ever written.

We also get here two pieces which Froberger has written while in Paris: the Allemande 'faite à Paris' and a gigue which is sometimes called 'la Rusée Mazarinique' - referring to the slyness of Cardinal Mazarin and the ups and downs in his career. The gigue's beginning is remarkable because of the irregular rhythm. As Froberger introduced the music of his teacher Frescobaldi in France it is nice that his Capriccio in G is also included. With its many twists and turns it is a capricious piece indeed, another example of the stylus phantasticus. The Passacaille by Luigi Rossi is the only keyboard work by this Italian composer which has been preserved. He was mainly famous for his operas and cantatas.

The disc ends with another famous work: the Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher by Louis Couperin, here played as the last movement in the Suite in F. Charles Fleury, sieur de Blancrocher, was a lutenist, and he became a close friend of Froberger. But the friendship didn't last long: Blancrocher fell down the stairs and died during Froberger's stay in Paris. Both Louis Couperin and Froberger wrote Tombeaus for Blancrocher. Couperins piece is a superior work in which the ringing of death bells are repeated several times.

This is also one of the highlights of this recording. It is superbly played by Benjamin Alard whose performance is absorbing and highly expressive and profits from the sonorous bass of the harpsichord. The tension never decreases despite the moderate tempo. That is a feature of this whole recording: the tempi are mostly moderate, even in a piece like the 'Branle de Basque' which is often played very fast. In his performance Alard adds some nice ornamentation. The 'Prélude à l'imitation de Froberger' which opens this disc is also brilliantly played, with an excellent realisation of the contrast between the various sections. The more light-weight pieces, like the courantes in both suites, are played with flamboyance and playfulness.

The programme has been well put together: there is a clear coherence despite the variety in genres and styles. The playing by Benjamin Alard is most impressive, both technically and in regard to interpretation. He uses a splendid harpsichord and the programme has been well recorded. The booklet contains informative programme notes in French and English and information about the instrument. In short, this is a superior disc and not to be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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