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Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1628 - 1691): "Suites for Harpsichord"

Elizabeth Farr, harpsichorda, lute-harpsichordb

rec: August 2007, Manchester, MI, Ploger Hall
Naxos - 8.570472-73 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (1.34'32")

Suite No 1 in Gb; Suite No 2 in g minora; Suite No 3 in d minora; Suite No 4 in Db

(Source: Pièces de Clavecin, 1689)

In the late 16th and early 17th century the lute was the leading instrument in France. During the 17th century this role was gradually taken over by the harpsichord. The key figure in the emancipation of the harpsichord was Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/02 - 1672), who is considered the father of the French harpsichord school. He played a key role in the rise to fame of Louis Couperin, and Jean-Henry d'Anglebert is assumed to have been one of his pupils. This could have led to d'Anglebert writing a tombeau at the occasion of Chambonnières death, which is the closing movement of the Suite No 4 in D.

D'Anglebert has composed only keyboard works. The four suites were published in 1689 as Pièces de Clavecin, which were dedicated to Marie-Anne, the Princesse de Conti, daughter of King Louis XIV. It is relevant to quote part of this dedication: "The natural graces which accompany everything you do pervaded your playing from your earliest childhood, and when I had the honour of showing you some of these pieces, you added virtuosic passages in performing them which gave me new ideas and led me to produce what is most pleasant in the enclosed." This quotation is interesting in regard to performance practice. It shows that the printed edition doesn't reveal how the music was actually played. At the same time one should be careful to conclude that the interpreter can add ornaments and "virtuosic passages" at random. D'Anglebert suggests he has included the additions by Marie-Anne in the definitive impression. And therefore one could argue that playing what the edition holds is just enough. Although Elizabeth Farr in her programme notes doesn't explicitly refers to her views on this subject I have the impression that she sticks to what d'Anglebert has written down. And as "[it] is possible to count as many as from four to six ornament symbols in many measures" that seems to me the right thing to do.

Most ornaments are indicated by symbols explained in the table which was added to the edition. Most ornaments were invented by d'Anglebert himself, and the table of ornaments in this edition is the most precise any French composer has written down. For that reason the collection of 1689 is an invaluable source of information about performance practice.

It is not the only reason of d'Anglebert's importance. It is also the character and quality of his music. His oeuvre is heavily indebted to the style brisé of the French lute school. Its quality is reflected by the fact that the collection was twice reprinted after his death, in 1703 and 1704. Johann Sebastian Bach made a copy of d'Anglebert's collection, another indication of its importance.

Three of the four suites open with a prélude non mesuré. The preludes of the first two suites are rather short, the prelude of the Suite No 3 in d minor is twice as long. The length of the four suites is variable; its structure was not standardized yet. And so the Suite No 1 in G consists of 13 movements, among them three courantes - the first of which followed by a double - and a chaconne. The Suite No 2 in g minor is much shorter. Here the prelude is followed by an allemande, two courantes, a sarabande and a gigue - the four dances which would later become the standard movements of a suite -, and is concluded by a gaillarde and a passacaille, the longest movement of the suite.
The Suite No 3 in d minor is by far the longest, with two courantes - one of them again followed by a double - and two sarabandes. Also included are a gaillarde and a gavotte. After a menuet the suite is concluded by a brilliant set of 22 variations on 'Folies d'Espagne'. The Suite No 4 in D is the shortest of the set. It has no prelude: it opens with an allemande, which is followed by two courantes, sarabande, gigue and chaconne rondeau. It is concluded, as already indicated, by the 'Tombeau de Chambonnières'.

The influence of the French lute school has led Elizabeth Farr to play the two suites in major keys on the lute-harpsichord. The argument for doing so is not convincing: there are harpsichord pieces by other composers which also show the influence of lute music, and I can't see any reason to play them on the lute-harpsichord. Moreover, d'Anglebert adapted the characteristics of French lute music to the harpsichord, so why trying to imitate the lute? But I think this choice of instrument is also historically very dubious. It is notable that in the article on the lute-harpsichord in New Grove only German makers of such instruments are mentioned. And it seems only German composers have written for the Lauten-Werck as it was called.

I also find the performance of d'Anglebert's music on the lute-harpsichord rather unsatisfying. It produces a much thinner sound than the harpsichord, and therefore the richness of tone one associates with the French harpsichord and French harpsichord music is lacking here. It is in particular the Suite No 1 in G which suffers from this, more than the Suite No 4 in D, although in my opinion the 'Tombeau' had made more impact if it had been played on the harpsichord.

That doesn't take anything away from my appreciation of the interpretation by Elizabeth Farr. I have been critical about her recording of keyboard works by Peter Philips, and also about her performances of the harpsichord works by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (not reviewed on this site). But I generally like the way she plays d'Anglebert's suites here. Technically Ms Farr's playing is impressive and her interpretations generally enthralling. The recording enigneer has done a fine job, and the programme notes are very informative and well written. The collection also contains some transcriptions of dances from operas by Lully. It would be nice if Ms Farr would get the opportunity to record them as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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