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Nicolas LEBÈGUE & Jacques HARDEL: "Complete Works for Harpsichord"

Karen Flint, harpsichord

rec: [no date, no place]
Plectra - PL12401 (3 CDs) (© 2014) (3.32'45")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Hardel
Scores Lebègue

Jacques HARDEL (c1643-1678): Gavotte & Double de la Gavotte in A; Pièces in C; Pièces in D; Nicolas LEBÈGUE (c1631-1702): Pièces in C [1]; Pièces in D [1]; Pièces in F [1]; Pièces in G [1]; Pièces in A [1]; Suitte en d la ré [2]; Suitte en F ut fa [2]; Suitte en G ré sol bémol [2]; Suitte en g ré sol bémol [2]; Suitte en A mi la ré dièse [2]; Suitte en a mi la ré [2]

Nicolas Lebègue, Les Pièces de Clavessin, 1677; Second Livre de Clavessin, 1687

Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601/02-1672) is generally considered the founder of the French harpsichord school. Among the composers for keyboard of the next generation - some of whom were his pupils - Jean-Henry d'Anglebert (1629-1691) and especially Louis Couperin (c1626-1661) are the best-known and are well represented on disc. In comparison the two composers who are the subject of the production reviewed here are largely neglected. In the case of Jacques Hardel that is understandable as his extant oeuvre is very small, but Lebègue left a substantial corpus of pieces for the harpsichord: the first two discs and more than half of the third are devoted to his oeuvre in this genre which Karen Flint recorded complete. Lebègue is best known as a composer of organ music; some of his organ works are regularly performed, for instance Les cloches.

Lebègue was born around 1631 in Laon; nothing is known about his musical education. It is also not known when he moved to Paris, but by 1661 he must have been quite famous as an organist, according to the chapter records of Troyes Cathedral where he once played the organ. From 1664 until his death he was organist of St Merri in Paris and in 1678 he was appointed organiste du Roi, a position he shared with three colleagues (see Deux siècles d'orgue - La Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles). He was often asked for advice when new organs were to be built in various towns across France. He was also a sought-after teacher: various of his pupils became renowned organists and composers, such as Nicolas de Grigny and François Dagincourt.

The fact that he was held in high esteem is reflected by the number of copies of his keyboard works, both for harpsichord and for organ. Five books with keyboard music were published: two with harpsichord pieces and three with organ works. In 1677 Les Pièces de Clavessin were printed, including 51 pieces, and in 1687 the Second Livre de Clavessin came off the press, with 44 pieces. In the first book the pieces are grouped according to key, beginning with a prélude non mesuré. These are the first of this kind to be published in France. The booklet includes a letter by the composer regarding the performance of such preludes which attests to the fact that this was a relatively new phenomenon which needed some explanation.

The preludes are followed by various dances, such as allemande, courante, menuet, sarabande and gavotte. There is no fixed order nor a fixed number for the five sets of pieces. Some dances are extended by a double and some titles have an additional reference to their character, such as sarabande grave or courante gaye. The chaconne was to become one of the most popular forms, both in instrumental music and in opera, but Lebègues first book includes just two. There are three in the second book, including a petitte chaconne, and another piece based on a basso ostinato, a passacaille. In this book the word suitte is used for the first time in French harpsichord music. The pieces are divided into six suites of various length and structure. Here he also adopts the style brisé which was a common practice in lute music. The 6e Suitte includes an Air de hautbois which could be a transcription of a piece from an opera. That would be an early example of a practice of which Jean-Henry d'Anglebert was the most pronounced exponent.

It would not surprise me if you had never heard of Hardel; I certainly had not. The year of his birth is not known; it was probably around 1643. He was from a family of instrument makers and musicians. His father was a master lute maker and acted also as a harpsichord teacher. Jacques must have played several instruments as an inventory of his belongings includes viols, lutes and other instruments. He also inherited Chambonnières' music who apparently considered him his best pupil; Hardel also took care of him during his final illness and wrote down his last pieces from dictation. He was in the service of Philippe, brother of Louis XIV and known as 'Monsieur'. He also played for the Sun King himself. His main activities were in the field of teaching, though. One of his pupils was a certain Gautier, to whom he left his and Chambonnières' music. From the inventory of his possessions one may conclude that he was quite wealthy.

Hardel's own compositions were never published but appear in at least 13 keyboard manuscripts and some lute manuscripts. His Gavotte in a minor was by far his most popular piece. Karen Flint plays it here with an additional double, probably from the pen of Marc Roger Normand Couperin, a cousin of François who made a career in Italy. The gavotte is included in a manuscript, called Livre de tablature de clavescin de Monsieur de Druent, écrit par Couperin. (That is also the source of a double to a gavotte by Lebègue from his first book which Ms Flint included in her recording.) Some of Hardel's pieces have come down to us in a lute version, bearing witness to his own skills on that instrument. One of these pieces is a transcription of a piece for harpsichord.

As far as I know Lebègue's harpsichord works have been recorded here complete for the first time. However, I am not sure how 'complete' it is as New Grove mentions some pieces preserved in manuscript. These seem not to have been included here, with the exception of an Allemande in G which Ms Flint included in the Pièces of the same key of the first book. Even so, this production is a significant addition to the discography. Considering the quality of Lebègue's harpsichord works it is a bit of a mystery why they are largely neglected. It would be nice if this production would contribute to his music being taken more seriously. The value of this release is even enhanced by the inclusion of the extant harpsichord works by Hardel. They equally deserve to be part of the repertoire of harpsichordists. In general one can only applaud every initiative to bring little-known repertoire to our attention. There are too many discs with the same repertoire, and this is a most welcome exception. Karen Flint plays two splendid historical harpsichords, both by Ioannes Ruckers, from 1627 and 1635 respectively, and both adapted in some ways by French harpsichord builders of the 18th century. Although they are from the same builder, there is some difference in sound which is especially notable when they are played in succession, for instance on the third disc.

On the whole I have enjoyed Ms Flint's performances and liked them more than her Chambonnières disc. That goes especially for her playing in Lebègues second book and in the pieces by Hardel. In particular on the first disc I noted what I criticised in her disc just mentioned, that her playing is sometimes a little awkward and stiff, and lacks fluency and elegance. Fortunately that is only a minor issue here. This production deserves the full attention of anyone who likes French harpsichord music.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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