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"La Superbe - French harpsichord music from the 18th century"

Albert-Jan Roelofs, harpsichord; Elizabeth Wallfisch, violina

rec: June 15 - 16, 2004, Utrecht, Oudkatholieke Kerk Maria minor (54'23")

Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749): Suite in C [1]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 17e Ordre in e minor [2]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): Chaconne [3]; La DeMaya [3]; La Forqueray [3]; La Madin [3]; Ouverturea [3]

Sources: [1] Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1704; [2] François Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, 1716-17; [3] Jacques Duphly, Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin, 1756

It lasted rather long before a French harpsichord school came into existence. This was mainly due to the dominant position of the French lute composers like Mouton, Dufaut and Gautier. The first really important composer of harpsichord music in France was Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1602-1672). Louis-Nicolas Clérambault can be considered a representative of the 'third generation' of harpsichord composers. But his reputation was not based on his harpsichord suites, of which he composed only two. He was first and foremost an organist, and in particular admired for his chamber cantatas, which show a strong Italian influence.

Clérambault's suites reflect the end of the formal development of the suite: the first movement is a prélude non mesuré, which is followed by the usual dances in suites of the time: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. There is also a second sarabande, a gavotte and a pair of menuets which conclude the suite. In the liner-notes Albert-Jan Roelofs writes that the movements of this suite are "rather conventional and academic in their use of traditional dance forms and harmonic progression". Is it this judgement which makes his performance less than inspired? At least the first movements are not as free as one would wish. The prélude non mesuré could have taken with a little more freedom. In the sarabandes I would have liked a stronger differentiation between the notes. The gigue, though, is played really well.

I was more impressed by the next item on the programme: the 17e Ordre in e minor by François Couperin. The music is more imaginative than that of Clérambault, and the interpretation reflects this. Couperin's suites are unconventional, in that he drops the title suite, and includes only some of the then usual dances. Instead we find here character pieces, which would become very popular during the 18th century. It is interesting to hear or read what kind of interpretations performers come up with in pieces like these. In regard to 'Les Petits Moulins à vent' (the little windmills), for instance, Roelofs writes: "Usually this title is interpreted as a reference to the Parisian windmills. The lightness of the piece and the small, repeated musical motives makes one rather think of the small paper windmills on top of wooden sticks that bring great amusement to children. One can easily imagine the repeated blowing in order to keep the small moulins moving. From time to time they nearly stop, just to be blown in action again." I find this interpretation quite convincing from a musical point of view. The question, of course, then is: did those paper windmills exist in Couperin's time? The playing of this piece is excellent, and makes the interpretation of the title all the more convincing. In the next piece in the Ordre, 'Timbres' (bells), the technique of notes inégales is used quite brilliantly to illustrate the irregular ringing of bells. The Ordre starts with a musical portrait of the famous French viol player and composer Forqueray, called 'La Suberbe' (which gave this disc its title): the little breathing spaces create a strong tension, which makes this piece very enthralling.

The last composer on the disc is Duphly, whose music shows some features of the new developments in the composing for the keyboard. It is interesting that he also wrote a piece in honour of Forqueray. I find the performance a little hasty: slowing down the tempo would have been appropriate to give it more weight. The third book also contains some pieces with an additional part for the violin, which is either playing colla parte with the upper part of the keyboard or gets involved in a dialogue with the harpsichord. I find the playing of Elizabeth Wallfisch a little too bland. Some ornamentation - vibrato, for instance - would have made the violin part more interesting. There is nothing wrong with Roelofs's playing, though.

The harpsichord is a very beautiful instrument with a strong sound and technically well recorded here. The liner notes by Albert-Jan Roelofs are informative and to the point. As this recording is released by the harpsichord maker one may assume it is mainly aimed at presenting one of his instruments to a wider audience. That undertaking has succeeded, as far as I am concerned. Since the performance varies from good to excellent and the disc contains a suite by Clérambault and music by Duphly which are not frequently played and recorded I don't hesitate to recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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