musica Dei donum
Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1727 - 1799): "Music for Harpsichord"
Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord
rec: August 2008, Manchester, MI, Ploger Hall
Naxos - 8.572034-35 (© 2010) (2.30'11")
Badine in A (57) ;
Gavotte Rondeau in g minor (60) ;
La Berryer ou La Lamoignon ;
La Berville ;
La Boullongne ;
La Castelmore ;
La Courteille ;
La d'Esclignac (1787);
La d'Héricourt ;
La de Caze ;
La Genty ;
La Lamarck ;
La Laporte ;
La Lugeac ;
La Malesherbe ;
La Monmartel ou la Brunoys ;
La Morisseau ;
La Ségur ;
La Suzanne ;
Le Bellaud ;
Marche des Marseillois et l'air Ça-ira (1793);
Menuet I & II in A/a minor (56) ;
Sonata in F 'Coucou' (63) ;
Sonata in G (61) ;
Sonata No 2 in F (41) ;
Sonata No 5 in G (44) ;
Sonata No 6 in F (45) ;
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764), arr Claude-Bénigne Balbastre:
Pygmalion (exc) (Ouverture; Pantomime; Giga; Contredanse)
 Livre contenant des pièces de différent genre d'orgue et de clavecin, 1749 (ms);
 Pièces de Clavecin, 1er Livre, 1759
The name Claude-Bénigne Balbastre could well ring a bell even with those who are not really acquainted with French music of the 18th century. His Noëls are part of the standard repertoire of organists, and are also often included in concerts and Christmas discs with choral music, as a kind of interludes. Originally the were written for any kind of keyboard instrument.
Although he composed some chamber music as well, he is and was mainly known as an organist and composer of music for keyboard. In his capacity as organist he played regularly in the Concert Spirituel in Paris, and in 1760 he was engaged as organist for three months a year in Notre Dame. In 1756 he had been appointed organist at St Roch, and here he played his Noëls every year during Midnight Mass. His playing attracted such huge crowds that in 1762 the archbishop forbade him to play.
If I am not mistaken Balbastre's reputation is not beyond all doubt as his music seems to reflect the general decline of the French keyboard tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries. The historical accounts of his playing seem to confirm this. The English music writer Charles Burney heard him play in 1770, and reported: "He performed in all styles in accompanying the choir. When the Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each verse several minuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover."
But it would be unfair to judge him by the reports of his playing. Virtuosity and exuberance are certainly present in the keyboard pieces which were printed in 1749 and 1759 respectively, and a certain amount of shallowness in his oeuvre can't be denied. But this disc gives a broad picture of his keyboard music, and shows that Balbastre has more to offer than pieces apparently aimed at creating maximum effect.
His versatility as a composer comes to the fore in the collection of 1759 which is performed completely here, and contains 17 character pieces. Although it is not always possible to identify the people the titles refer to with complete certainty, it is safe to say that they are personalities from the highest echelons of society. Balbastre may have been a 'popular' organist, who attracted the masses to his performances, he was very much part of the establishment of the ancien régime.
Balbastre acted as organist to King Louis XVI's brother, and among his pupils were Marie-Antoinette as well as daughters of French and foreign dignitaries, like Thomas Jefferson. Because of that the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 made his career and even his life quite precarious. He saved his skin by showing a positive attitude to the new rulers, for instance by composing variations on the revolutionary song 'La Marseillaise' which was soon to become the French national anthem. The fact that his daughter married a man who was closely connected with the revolutionary regime certainly helped as well. But his career went into decline nevertheless, and in 1799 he died in poverty.
In his character pieces Balbastre links up with tradition as compositions of this kind had been written before by François Couperin, Jacques Duphly, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray and Jean-Philippe Rameau. But Balbastre's style is often more virtuosic and full of effects and features considerable contrasts between the various sections. La de Caze and La Bellaud are examples of extraverted and theatrical pieces, whereas La Ségur and La Berryer ou La Lamoignon are much more intimate and elegant. There are several pieces with rustic elements, reminiscent of the musette, the bag-pipe or the hurdy-gurdy.
In particular in the collection of 1749, from which Elizabeth Farr has chosen eight pieces, we find more regular forms like dances (gavotte) and sonatas. In her programme notes Ms Farr suggests the influence of Domenico Scarlatti in this collection, and that is certainly notable in several pieces. Balbastre transcribed four instrumental sections, including the overture, from Rameau's opera Pygmalion. These are the kind of pieces he also played in the Concert Spirituel. It shows that Rameau was a very popular composer at the time. Balbastre and Rameau were also personal friends. The overture is highly virtuosic and technically demanding, especially because of the frequently repeated chords, to be played in a fast tempo.
Balbastre's music is sometimes also forward-looking. A remarkable piece is La Malesherbe from the 1759 collection which is almost Mozartian in character. The Prélude is likely the very last specimen of a prélude non mesuré ever composed in France. Stylistically it has not that much to do with the preludes of the past, though. Therefore it rather confirms than refutes Balbastre's modernity. Previously recordings have been made in which some of his music is played on the fortepiano, and that is certainly a legitimate option.
Elizabeth Farr has opted for the harpsichord, but the choice of instrument is questionable. It is a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord, which was built by Keith Hill. From the writings of Charles Burney we know that Balbastre himself owned a Ruckers harpsichord. He described the tone of the instrument as "more delicate than powerful". The tone of the instrument Ms Farr plays is more powerful than delicate, though. The reason is that Keith Hill hasn't just copied the Ruckers, but added a 16' stop to it. In the booklet he argues: "Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16' stop. (...) Claude Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer".
Hill admits that this view is not supported by the facts as "no French harpsichords with 16' stops remain from his time". But "I wanted to hear what the acoustic effect would be if a Ruckers type of harpsichord were extended in size by adding a 16' stop, with its own soundboard in the manner of the Hass family of harpsichord makers". This combination of Flemish-French (Ruckers) and German (Hass) elements results in an instrument which is the product of fantasy, can't be considered a 'copy' and therefore has nothing to do with historical performance practice.
The very fact that no French harpsichord with a 16' stop has come down to us as well as the quotation from Burney should have led to the conclusion that Balbastre's music really doesn't need a 16' stop. Previously harpsichordists have done without it, and from the recordings I have heard I never got the impression something was missing. On the contrary, I think the use of the 16' stop in this recording doesn't do Balbastre's music any favours nor does it help his reputation as a composer. The exuberant and theatrical character of many of the pieces can be realised without a 16' stop quite well, but by using it the effects become exaggerated. And that only serves to confirm the prejudice that Balbastre's music is all about superficial effect and lacks depth.
Too often exuberance turns into noise, and contrasts are stretched. It is also my impression that using a 16' stop forces a slower tempo. A number of pieces are just a bit too slow. That is certainly the case with the last item on this disc, the Marche des Marseillois et l'air Ça ira. I happen to have known this piece for many years, since early in his career Ton Koopman often played it in recitals, and also included it in one of his first recordings. He played it much faster, and with greater wit than Elizabeth Farr, whose interpretation is too heavy-handed.
I am in two minds about this recording. On the one hand, I am glad that Elizabeth Farr has paid attention to Balbastre, and that Naxos has given her the opportunity to record a broad selection from his keyboard oeuvre. I also have generally enjoyed her playing, more so than in previous recordings, especially the disc which was devoted to Peter Philips (also on Naxos). Only recently she recorded the keyboard suites by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, which I have assessed positively. But that disc was also marred because of the use, in some of the suites, of an instrument which was never used in France, the lute-harpsichord. Therefore it can't come as a surprise that Elizabeth Farr has again preferred fantasy over facts. In both cases I find her choice of instrument ill-judged, not only from a historical perspective but also from a strictly musical angle as I have tried to argue. The building and the use of this particular harpsichord compromise the very principles of the historical performance practice. Here the personal preferences of the harpsichord maker and the interpreter override historical evidence. But that is exactly what the pioneers of the historical performance practice wanted to get rid of, is it not?
Johan van Veen (© 2010)