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Jacques CHAMPION DE CHAMBONNIÈRES (1601/02 - 1672): "Les Pièces de Clavessin"

Karen Flint, harpsichord

rec: [no date, no place]
Plectra - PL 21001 (© 2010) (76'51")

Pieces in C; Pieces in D; Pieces in G; Pieces in A

Jacques Champion de Chambonnières is considered the father of the French harpsichord school. It is therefore rather strange that his music is largely neglected by modern performers. This year French music of the time of Louis XIV was the theme of the Festival Early Music in Utrecht. It included a series of harpsichord recitals which span a period of about a century. But not a single note by Champion de Chambonnières was played. And in my collection I have just one disc which is entirely devoted to his oeuvre, recorded by Françoise Lengellé (Pan Classics). And as about 90 pieces from his pen have come down to us there is much to choose from.

Let us first have a look at Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. He was born in a musical family of harpsichordists and organists. His grandfather Thomas Champion was appointed first organist of the royal chapel and chamber in 1578. His son, Jacques Champion, was organist and valet de chambre of Henri III. Jacques junior took the name 'Chambonnières' from his mother's father, sieur de Chambonnières. This seems to have been part of his attempts to improve his social status. At some time he called himself baron.

Champion de Chambonnières was a child prodigy: at the age of 10 he received the reversion of his father's position at the court of Louis XIII as organist, valet de chambre and joueur d'espinette. He played at court and started to compose, but he also danced, first before Louis XIII, later on with Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Lully. Interesting is that he was probably the first in France to organise paying concerts, as he established the Assemblée des honnestes curieux in 1641. Twice a week public performances took place, apparently with two singers, a viol player and himself at the harpsichord.

Chambonnières was also the first since about a century to publish music which was especially written for the harpsichord. In 1670 two books with harpsichord pieces were printed. One of the reasons was that "shoddy copies, full of mistakes" were circulating. By publicising them Chambonnières could be sure that his works were offered to the public in versions which he approved of. The circulation of his compositions is a sign of their great popularity. He had plenty of admirers; one of the most ardent of them was the Dutch playwright and poet Constantijn Huygens who is mainly responsible for the dissemination of Chambonnière's music outside France. It is through him that Johann Jacob Froberger became acquainted with Chambonnières works.

Eight years after his death Jacques Le Gallois wrote about Chambonnières: "He had a delicacy of hand that others lacked, in such a way that if he played a chord and someone else imitated him in doing exactly the same, one perceived nevertheless a great difference - and the reason is, that he had a different manner of approaching the keyboard and of placing his fingers on the keys that was unknown to others". He also made a comparison between Chambonnières and Louis Couperin who had been introduced to the court by Chambonnières: "Their two styles of playing had different characteristics, and it could be said that one touched the heart and the other touched the ear. (...) They pleased, but pleased differently, because of the varied beauties of their styles of playing".

It is almost impossible to pin-point how they differed and how exactly Chambonnières played the harpsichord. But my gut feeling is that it can hardly be the way Karen Flint plays the harpsichord. Her playing is mostly ponderous and awkward and anything but elegant and fluent. Their is often a lack of articulation and of differentiation between the notes, and too often she goes for a strong sound by coupling the manuals. Some faster dances come off rather well, like the two last pieces, Gigue la Vilageoise and Canaris (Pieces in G). But the slower dances, for instance the Pavane l'entretien des Dieux (Pieces in G), are stiff and tend to plod along.

This is a big shame, because Karen Flint plays a beautiful harpsichord: an instrument which was built in 1635 by Johannes Ruckers and was extended with a second manual in France around the middle of the 18th century. It also seems she has chosen largely different pieces than Françoise Lengellé. Since there are no generally accepted catalogue numbers and most pieces are simply called 'courante' or 'allemande' they are difficult to identify. At least one piece appears on both discs, the Allemande Le Moutier & Double du Moutier (Pieces in C), the latter of which has been written by Louis Couperin. Here Françoise Langellé is by far superior to Karen Flint, and her recording is a much more convincing attempt to give some idea of how Jacques Champion de Chambonnières may have played.

But both discs show that his music is of high quality and doesn't deserve to be neglected. I can't understand why Louis Couperin's harpsichord music has been recorded completely several times, and so far no complete recording of Chambonnière's oeuvre has been released.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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