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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "Apothéoses"

Ricercar Consort; François Morel, recitera

rec: Sept 2010, Beaufays, Église St Jean l'évangéliste
Mirare - MIR 150 (© 2011) (66'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

François COUPERIN: Concert instrumental sous le Titre d'Apothéose composé à la mémoire immortelle de l'incomparable Monsieur de Lullia; Le Parnasse ou L'apothéose de Corelli. Grande Sonade en Trioa; Jean-Fery REBEL (1666-1747): Tombeau de Monsieur de Lully in c minor [1]

Sources: [1] Jean-Fery Rebel, Recueil de douze Sonates, 1712

Marc Hantaï, Georges Barthel, transverse flute; François Fernandez, Sophie Gent, violin; Philippe Pierlot, viola da gamba; Eduardo Egüez, theorbo, guitar; François Guerrier, harpsichord

The opposition of the French and Italian styles is one of the main items of music history of the 17th and 18th centuries. The general view is that the French were deeply opposed to the influence of the Italians, and that it was only after the turn from the 17th to the 18th century that French composers started to write music which shows traces of the Italian taste. In reality this picture is too one-sided. In the early decades of the 17th century there was a vivid interest in the newest trends in Italian music, as demonstrate the performances of Giulio Caccini and his daughter Francesca in Paris in 1604. It was due to the efforts of the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin that Luigi Rossi worked for some years in Paris and composed and performed his opera Orfeo. The year before Francesco Cavalli's opera Egisto was performed in Paris, and in 1660 the composer went to Paris himself, where he was active for two years. His opera Xerse was performed, albeit strongly adapted to the French taste, and he composed Ercole amante. The end of the influence of the Italians in France came with the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 and the growing domination of the music scene by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

He was instrumental in the establishment of a purely French style - in particular in the music theatre - which was devoid of any Italian influence. It is tempting to speculate about his motifs, considering that he was of Italian birth, and even wrote some music in Italian style himself. His attempt to establish his authority could have been the incentive for Lully to be more Catholic than the Pope. As a result the preference for Italian music became suspect, as Lully's colleague Marc-Antoine Charpentier experienced. His Italian leanings and especially the fact that he spent several years in Rome prevented him from being given any official post at the court or playing a role in Lully's Académie Royale de Musique.

Meanwhile the lovers of Italian music kept a low profile, and music by Italian composers was performed in private circles. One of them was that around the Abbé Mathieu, near the church of St Gervais. "[Intimate] little concerts were given in his salon, and it was there that the French discovered Corelli", Philippe Beaussant writes in the liner-notes. It is probably also here that Couperin performed the first sonata he ever composed, La Pucelle, later included in Les Nations under the title of La Françoise. In the foreword of that collection he states that at that occasion he rearranged the letters of his name in such a way that it looked Italian. Although Lully had already died in 1687 there were plenty French musicians and music-loving authors who were keen to defend the French taste against all undermining influences from Italy. One of them was Jean Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville who, in his comments on the music of Jean-Féry Rebel, summed up what he disliked in Italian music: "Rebel truly put into [his sonatas] Italian genius and fire, but he had the good taste and the skill to temper them with French moderation and gentleness, and he refrained from those terrifying and monstrous appoggiaturas which so delight the Italians".

In his foreword to Les Nations Couperin confessed his great admiration for the music of Corelli. This is also expressed in his Apothéose de Corelli which is modelled after the trio sonatas by the Italian master. It was meant as a tribute to Corelli, but at the same time it was a way to express Couperin's preference for the goûts réunis, the junction of the two opposing styles. Its inclusion in the collection Les Goûts-Réünis ou Nouveaux Concerts of 1724 bears witness to that. This Apothéose includes just one clear reference to the French style of which Lully was the main representative: the fifth movement, a sommeil as it regularly turned up in French opera. The composer's advocacy of the mixture of the two styles is more clearly and explicitly expressed in the Apothéose de Lully. Here the two styles are exposed and come to a compromise in the Sonade en trio which closes the work. Some contrasts can not be heard and only be seen, as Philippe Beaussant explains. "[His] score takes the idea as far as it will go, since, when it is depicting Corelli, the treble clef has G on the second line of the stave, as was customary in Italy, whereas when it is Lully who speaks the G is on the bottom line, as was the case in France". He also refers to the spelling of the name of Lully: "with a 'y', although the composer in question was born in Florence, and was actually named, in his youth, Giambattista Lulli". But in the score only the title page has the spelling of 'Lully', whereas in the titles of the various movements the spelling is 'Lulli', and the title which precedes the first movement says 'Apothéose de Lulli'. Therefore we shouldn't make too much of that.

Beaussant rightly refers to the operatic character of the piece; he calls it a pastiche in which a dialogue between the two masters takes place. This was the most appropriate form as Lully was first and foremost known as a composer of music for the theatre. Various movements reflect opera, like the Plaintes of the Auteurs Contemporains of the previous movement. The scoring of the two Apothéoses is different as well. The Apothéose de Corelli, is - in line with Corelli's own trio sonatas - for two violins and bc. In the Apothéose de Lully two transverse flutes are involved, which play either colla parte with the violins or replace the latter - a common habit in French instrumental music in Lully's time, and especially in the opera orchestra.

The two Apothéoses are separated by the Tombeau de Monsieur de Lully by Jean-Fery Rebel, who was a pupil of Lully in composition and playing the violin. He is also an advocate of the mixed style, and that explains that this Tombeau has the texture of a Corellian trio sonata. In content it is very much like an operatic scene with récits and airs.

Couperin's Apothéoses are not exactly neglected by performers and are available in various recordings. I don't know them all, and I haven't compared this recording with others, but it is my impression that these performances are more restraint, or more intimate than others. That is apparently the view of the ensemble's director, Philippe Pierlot. I could imagine a more extroverted, Italian way of playing in the Apothéose de Corelli, but this is French music, and the Ricercar Consort defends its approach convincingly. If you like French instrumental music you will greatly enjoy this disc. The character of the two Apothéoses is perfectly exposed, and the Tombeau de Monsieur de Lully by Rebel is given a very fine performance. The titles are recited by the French actor François Morel, unfortunately in modern French pronunciation.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Ricercar Consort

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