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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Les Nations

Juilliard Baroque

rec: Feb 10 & Dec 10, 2013, New York, Corpus Christi Church, 525 West 121st Street
Naxos - 8.573347-48 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.40'13")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Second Ordre: L'Espagnole; Troisième Ordre: L'Impériale; Quatrième Ordre: La Piémontoise

Source: Les nations: sonades et suites de simphonies en trio, 1726

Sandra Miller, transverse flute; Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Monica Huggett, Cynthia Roberts, violin; Sarah Cunningham, viola da gamba; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo, guitar; Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord

François Couperin was one of the foremost advocates of the goûts réunis, the mixture of the French and Italian styles. This comes especially to the fore in his Apothéoses, written in honour of the two famous representatives of these styles, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Arcangelo Corelli respectively. These pieces were printed in 1724 and 1725. The next year he underlined his preference with the publication of Les Nations, a collection of four ordres for two treble instruments and basso continuo. The titles refer to the four main powers on the European continent: France (La Françoise), Spain (L'Espagnole), the Holy Roman Empire (L'Impériale) and Italy (La Piémontoise). The latter title refers to Piedmont which represents the Duchy of Savoy which was a French ally and became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1720 in the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession.

The ordres are divided into two sections. The first is a trio sonata which refers to the Italian style; each of them comprises a sequence of movements of contrasting character and tempo. The trio sonatas were reworkings of pieces which Couperin had composed in the 1690s. At that time the Italian style was officially rejected in France. Therefore Couperin presented his sonatas under a nickname. The trio sonata in La Françoise was originally called La Pucelle, the one in L'Espagnole was known as La Visionnaire and the sonata L'Astrée found its way into La Piémontoise. It has always been assumed that the trio sonata from L'Impériale was specifically composed for Les Nations. However, this is a reworking of a sonata with the title La Convalescente which was discovered not long ago 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 a little surprising that this is not mentioned by Robert Mealy, who wrote the liner-notes to the present recording.

Each of the trio sonatas is followed by a dance suite, representing the French style. All suites include the four dances which had become a fixed part of any suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In their respective tempi - slow, fast, slow, fast - they are more or less counterparts to the four movements of the Corellian trio sonata. Every suite is expanded by additional pieces, mostly other dances, such as gavotte, bourrée or menuet. Three of the four ordres - the exception is La Piémontoise - include a passacaille or chaconne. This is a reference to the past: such pieces based on a repeated bass pattern were a fixed part of any opera by Lully. Three ordres - the exception here is La Françoise - have a rondeau. This was a form which was to become very popular in the near future, especially in the galant idiom of the mid-18th century. This way Les Nations connect the past and the future.

Couperin left it to the performers to choose the instruments. The title page doesn't mention any instrument; the four part books only refer to 1. dessus and 2e dessus, a basse d'archet (string bass) and basse chifrée (basso continuo). Because of that the recordings on the market - and there are quite a number of them - are not only different in regard to interpretation but also in the use of instruments. Musica antiqua Köln and Musica ad Rhenum, for instance, play these ordres with two violins and two transverse flutes, either in alternation or colla parte. Hespèrion XX and, more recently, Les Ombres add two oboes and a bassoon. Juilliard Baroque is somewhere in the middle: two violins, one flute and one oboe. The participation of these instruments differs from one movement to the other. Some movements are played with two violins, others with a violin and a flute or an oboe, and there are also movements with one violin on the one hand and flute and oboe playing colla parte on the other. This results in a maximum variety and it is often easy to understand why some instruments have been selected to play a particular dance. In L'Espagnol, for instance, the allemande is played with violin and transverse flute, reflecting the character indication gracieusement. The ensuing courante has the description noblement, and here the violin is joined by the oboe. The sarabande from La Piémontoise shows that the oboe can also play tendrement.

The rear inlay doesn't specifically say so, but as these recordings were made on two single days I think it is safe to assume that these are live recordings. There are some moments between movements where you can hear some slight noises of musicians turning the pages. That makes these performances even more admirable. Although there are various recordings available I am glad that these fine musicians who belong to the very best in the business have added their interpretations of these beautiful works to the catalogue. Every single player has made a career as a soloist, and Monica Huggett is one of the pioneers of historical performance practice. It is good to see that she and her colleagues are ready to share their knowledge and experience with the students of the Juilliard School which for many years stayed away from historical performance practice. This disc is an impressive testimony of their skills in the interpretation of baroque repertoire.

Even if you have a good recording of Les Nations in your collection, you should seriously consider adding this one. I am sure you will return to it regularly.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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