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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Music for the Chamber

[I] "Les Muses naissantes"
Emmanuelle De Negri, sopranoa; Brice Sailly, harpsichord (solob)
La Chambre Claire
rec: Sept 2017, Centeilles, Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 387 (© 2018) (67'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

4e Concert royal in e minor (forlane) [4]; 8e Concert dans le Goût Théatral in G (grande ritournelle) [6]; 7e Ordre in G (Les Petits-Âges)b [3]; 15e Ordre in a minor (Le Dodo ou l'Amour au berceau)b [5]; 18e Ordre in f minor (Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins)b [5]; 20e Ordre in G (La Croûlli ou la Couperinéte - Première partie; Seconde partie de la Pièce précédente dans le goût de Musète)b [8]; 21e Ordre in e minor (La Petite Pince-sans-rire; La Reine des Coeurs)b [8]; 25e Ordre in E flat/C (Les Ombres errantes)b [8]; Brunette: Zephire, modère en ces lieuxa [2]; Doux liens de mon coeura [1]; L'Espagnole in c minor (affectueusement) [7]; La Françoise in e minor (air; gavotte; chaconne ou passacaille) [7]; La Pastorelle: Il faut aimer dès qu'on sait plairea [2]; Musette: À l'ombre d'un ormeauxa [2]; Qu'on ne me dise plaus que c'est la seule absencea [2]

Sources: Ballard, ed., [1] Recueil d'airs sérieux et à boire, 1701; [2] Recueil d'airs sérieux et à boire, 1711; François Couperin, [3] Second Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1717; [4] Concerts Royaux, 1722; [5] Troisième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1722; [6] Les Goûts-Réünis ou Nouveau Concerts, 1724; [7] Les Nations: Sonades et Suites de Simphonies en Trio, 1726; [8] Quatrième Livre de pièces de clavecin, 1730

Morgane Eouzan, transverse flute; Guillaume Cuiller, Vincent Blanchard, oboe; Bojan Cicic, violin; Atsushi Sakaï, treble & bass viol; Marion Martineau, bass viol; Nicolas André, bassoon

[II] "Les Concerts Royaux"
I Fiori Musicali
rec: Jan 3 - 5, 2017, Padua, Sala Carmeli
Urania Records - LDV 14031 (© 2017) (55'54")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

1er Concert in G; 2e Concert in D; 3e Concert in A; 4e Concert in e minor

Source: Concerts Royaux, 1722

Maria Giovanna Fiorentino, recorder, transverse flute; Rosita Ippolito, viola da gamba; Paolo Tognon, bassoon; Maria Luisa Baldassari, harpsichord


A commemoration year usually results in a stream of recordings of the oeuvre of the composer who is commemorated. More often than not such a composer hardly needs such a host of new releases. That was the case with Telemann, whose popularity was already growing before 2017, when his death in 1767 was commemorated. It also goes for François Couperin: this year we celebrate his birth in 1668.

The largest part of his oeuvre is available in many recordings: his pièces de clavecin, his two organ masses and his chamber music. However, there is one genre which is seriously underexposed: his vocal music. His three Leçons de Ténèbres have been recorded many times, but his motets are not available complete on disc. His secular vocal music is also not very well known, but that part of his oeuvre is very small: three solo songs, five duets and four trios. The first disc to be reviewed here includes five secular pieces.

One could call that disc a sampler, but that term is mostly used for a collection of pieces recorded before. Here we have entirely new recordings, but the programme is an amalgam of vocal items, extracts from chamber music works and harpsichord pieces, taken from the livres de clavecin 2 to 4, which Couperin published between 1717 and 1730. I am not a great fan of such recordings. In some cases they can be useful to portray a composer, but that is hardly needed in the case of Couperin, who is one of the best-known composers of the baroque period in France. However, here the performers look at the oeuvre of Couperin from a particular angle.

In his liner-notes Jérôme Lejeune characterises Couperin as "a musician who, although in the service of the Chambre du roi, nonetheless remained a man of great discretion and who, it seems, shunned the showy splendours of the opera in order to devote himself to his own form of poetry, to his endeavours to express what cannot be put into words. Alongside the architects, painters and sculptors who created the splendours of Versailles, Couperin appears more as a master draughtsman: a man who can capture an attitude, a gesture and even an emotion in a few brief strokes of the pen." In the booklet to the recording of the Concerts Royaux Jordi Savall is quoted, saying that Couperin was the "poet musician par excellence", who believed in "the ability of Music [with a capital M] to express itself in prose and poetry".

This explains the way the programme at the Ricercar disc has been put together. "Brice Sailly has gone through Couperin's chamber music, his little-known airs de cour and his harpsichord works; here he offers us a poetic journey through an imaginary Arcadia where various characters stroll about, fall in love, observe each other and become estranged. These are the same characters who populate the literature that inspired both Italian madrigals and the air français: they are generally shepherds and shepherdesses and bear such names as Tirsis, Zéphire, Silvie, Phillis and Iris."

The core of the programme are the harpsichord pieces. In Couperin's oeuvre one can certainly find brilliant, almost spectacular pieces, although not in the way composers of the next generations liked to compose. However, here we hear especially the more intimate pieces from Couperin's four ordres. That does not mean they are technically simple; in Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins, for instance, Couperin makes use of the cross-hand technique. In some pieces he explores a particular part of the keyboard, such as the lower part in Les Délices. In La Muse naissante he deceives the listener as the two voices are constructed in such a way that one may think to hear three or four.

The five vocal items are the most interesting part of this disc. These pieces are not well-known and seldom performed and recorded. We hear all three solo songs and two of the duets. The latter seems strange, as only one singer is involved. À l'ombre d'un ormeau is called a musette and ranks among the airs sérieux. It is scored for soprano and alto; the latter part is performed instrumentally here. I find this a rather unfortunate solution. La Pastorelle: Il faut aimer is for tenor, bass and basso continuo. Whereas there is probably no strict objection against a performance by a soprano, I have not been able to discover what the performers have done with the bass part, as I had no access to the score.

The inclusion of these songs is most welcome, but the way they are treated here is less than ideal. That also goes for the performance. The plus is the use of historical pronunciation, still a rarity in recordings of French secular vocal music, including operas. The minus is that Emmanuelle de Negri uses a bit too much vibrato. These songs shed light on a part of French music of the ancien régime, which is still seriously underrated. There was more than opera and chamber cantata. Couperin's songs were published in anthologies of songs by various composers. These collections deserve to be further explored.

Brice Sailly's performances of the harpsichord pieces are excellent; he shows great sensitivity towards the character of every single piece, which is explained in the booklet with extracts from Philippe Beausant's book François Couperin of 1980. The extracts from the chamber music are played very well, but most lovers of Couperin's music may prefer the complete pieces. That said, they will certainly enjoy this disc, which approaches Couperin from a specific and meaningful angle.

For the second disc we turn to the four Concerts Royaux, which belong among Couperin's best-known and most frequently-performed and recorded chamber works. They were published as an appendix to the Troisième Livre de Clavecin on two staves, suggesting a performance on the harpsichord. However, in his preface Couperin explains that they can also be played on a variety of instruments, such as the violin, the flute, the oboe, the viola da gamba and the bassoon. He himself played them at the chamber concerts of Louis XIV with André Danican Philidor (oboe), François Duval (violin), Pierre Dubois (bassoon) and Hilaire (Alarius) Verloge (viola da gamba). It is often assumed that he composed them in 1714/15, that is at the very end of Louis XIV's life (he died on 1 September 1715). But he merely writes that he "arranged them by key and preserved the titles under which they were known at court in 1714 and 1715". From this statement we have to conclude that those are the years he put them together to the form in which we know them. Individual pieces may be considerably older. There can be no doubt that they reflect the rather conservative taste of the Sun King. That doesn't mean that they are completely devoid of Italian influences but Couperin incorporated them in such a way that they fully fit into the tradional French style which dominates here.

The alternative instrumentations Couperin himself mentions offer many different opportunities to performers. This means that despite the number of recordings it is often possible to come up with a real alternative through the use of different instruments. The Trio Sonnerie (ASV Gaudeamus, 1986) recorded the Concert Royaux with violin and bc, Musica ad Rhenum (Brilliant Classics, 2004) used transverse flute and violin; so did Clavecin en Concert (Analekta, 2013), but added an oboe. I Fiori Musicali uses the flute alongside the recorder. The latter is not mentioned by Couperin, but that in itself does not exclude this option. The Concerts Royaux were published in 1722, and at that time the recorder was certainly still played, especially among amateurs. I can't remember having heard the recorder in these pieces before, and from that perspective this is a welcome and interesting alternative. Maria Giovanna Fiorentino plays two different recorders here, a soprano recorder and a voice flute. However, I noted that in the Second Concert, which is performed at the soprano recorder, she turns to the sopranino in the fourth movement. I wonder whether this indicates that this piece is probably less suited for a performance at the recorder. In the Troisième Concert the middle section of the sarabande is played as a harpsichord solo; the sarabande from the Quatrième Concert is played entirely at the harpsichord.

The performances are generally quite good, although not always as flexible as one might wish. In the air tendre from the Second Concert the viola da gamba is a bit awkward. However, all in all this recording offers a nice alternative to most recordings in the catalogue.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Brice Sailly
I Fiori Musicali

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