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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "Les Nations réunies & autres sonades"

La Simphonie du Marais
Dir: Hugo Reyne

rec: Nov 23 - 25, 2017, Paris, Salle Colonne
Musique à la Chabotterie - 605018 (© 2018) (72'10")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

17e Ordre in e minor (La Superbe ou La Forqueray)a [1]; 25e Ordre in E flat/C (La Visionnaire)a [2]; 26e Ordre in f sharp minor (La Convalenscente)a [2]; Concert instrumental sous le Titre d'Apothéose composé à la mémoire immortelle de l'incomparable Monsieur de Lulli (Paix du Parnasse); 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

[1] Troisième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1722; [2] Quatrième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1730

Hugo Reyne, Christophe Mazeaud, recorder, oboe; Jorlen Vega, Amandine Bernhardt, violin; Etienne Mangot, viola da gamba; Marc Duvernois, bassoon; André Henrich, archlute; Yannick Varlet, harpsichord (soloa)

The trio sonata was basically an Italian invention. It was in particular Arcangelo Corelli, who laid down the structure of the trio sonata with the four collections he published as his Opp. 1 to 4. Whereas in particular in Germany new developments in Italian music were enthusiastically embraced, the French attitude towards the Italian style was rather negative, and the first trio sonatas by French composers were only printed after 1700. However, some of them were written during the last decade of the 17th century. Among the first composers of such pieces was François Couperin.

His first sonatas date from 1692. They are preserved in two manuscripts, copied by Sébastien de Brossard, himself an admirer of the Italian style. They later appeared in the collection Les Nations, and in the preface to this edition Couperin states: "The first sonata of this collection was the first I composed and indeed the first composed in France. It has a singular history. Delighted by the sonatas of Signor Corelli, whose work I shall enjoy as long as I live, as also the work of Monsieur de Lulli, I risked composing one which was played in the place where I had heard those of Corelli. Knowing French harshness towards foreign innovations of any type, and not too confident in myself, I did myself a good service by slight prevarication. I pretended that a relative, who exists in fact, in the service of the king of Sardinia, had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. The signature was my own name with the letters rearranged so as to form an Italian name. The sonata was swallowed with enthusiasm and I will make no further comment. This encouraged me to write more and my italianised name brought me, under my disguise, a great deal of applause. Fortunately the reception given to my sonatas was so favourabke that my subterfuge caused me no blushes. I have included these first sonatas with those I have written since without any significant modification or addition. I have simply placed them with long suites of pieces to which the sonatas stand as preludes or introductions as it were".

Couperin did not make significant changes, but gave the sonatas a new title. 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. For a long time it was assumed that the sonade (as Couperin Frenchified the word sonata) which opens the 3e Ordre was newly written for this edition. But not long a manuscript of La Convalescente was 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 that ordre. The combination of a sonata in the Italian style and a suite of French dances reflects Couperin's ideal: the mixture of the two styles. That preference also comes to the fore in the title of the collection Les goûts-réünis, which was published in 1724, as well as in the two Apothéoses which are tributes to the two masters he admired most and whom he mentioned in the preface to Les Nations: Jean-Baptiste Lully and Arcangelo Corelli.

In the booklet - which includes an 'interview' by Hugo Reyne with the composer, based on what the latter has written himself - the director of La Simphonie du Marais suggests that this is the first recording of the complete sonatas. That is incorrect: in 2012 Ricercar released a disc with the same seven sonatas, performed by the ensemble Les Dominos. And there is certainly no lack of recordings of individual sonatas. However, they often differ in the choice of instruments. Couperin didn't indicate which instruments should play the two upper parts. In the preface to his Apothéose de Lully, he states that this piece, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli and "the complete book of trios which I hope to publish next July", can be played on two harpsichords. "I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one". This already indicates that the composer gave the interpreters almost unlimited freedom to perform his music with the instruments of their own choice. Les Dominos chose pairs of transverse flutes and violins, Hugo Reyne opted for pairs of violins, recorders and oboes.

There are different ways to perform these sonatas. Som performances are rather exuberant and extroverted, others are more restrained. I would rank the present performances by Hugo Reyne and his colleagues among the latter category. The dynamic shades are moderate, also due to the limited dynamic capabilities of the recorders. It is especially the oboes which bring dynamic contrasts into these performances. The different instruments either alternate or play colla parte within single movements.

These sonatas may be available in various recordings, but I have certainly enjoyed these performances. The insertion of those of Couperin's harpsichord pieces that have the same titles as some of the sonatas is an interesting addition. The disc fittingly ends with an extract from the Sonade en trio which closes the Apothéose de Lulli, here under the title of Tombeau de François Couperin. This disc is a worthy tribute to a composer who was rightly called "Couperin le Grand".

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

La Simphonie du Marais

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