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Claude-Bťnigne BALBASTRE (1724 - 1799): "Quatre Suites de NoŽls"

Olivier Baumont, harpsichord, fortepianoa, organb

rec: Dec 28 - 29, 1999, Saint-Quentin (Aisne), Musťe Antoine Lťcuyera; May 16 - 17, 2000, Cintegabelle (Haute-Garonne), …glise de la Nativitť de Marieb
Tempťraments - TEM 316068 (R) (© 2000/2022) (67'18")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Premiere Suitte de NoŽlsa; Deuxieme Suitte de NoŽlsa; Troisieme Suitte de NoŽlsb; Quatrieme Suitte de NoŽlsb

Source: Recueil de NoŽls, formant quatre suittes, avec des variations, pour le clavecin et le forte piano, 1770

Even those who don't regularly listen to baroque or organ music may have heard NoŽls now and then. They are often performed during Christmastide, as part of concerts with choral music, even on symphonic organs. The NoŽls of Claude-Bťnigne Balbastre are among the most popular. He was very famous for his improvisations of NoŽls at St Roch in Paris: his playing attracted such huge crowds that in 1762 the archbishop forbade him to play.

The origin of these Christmas songs often go back as far as the Middle Ages. They gradually became part of the liturgy. Until the beginning of the 17th century they were sung during the Offertory; then the ecclesiastical authorities tried to put an end to this tradition. As a way of compensation, organists started to play variations on these songs during the Offertory. In the course of the 18th century, such music was also increasingly played outside the church. The construction of an organ at the Concert Spirituel, the concert organization that had started its activities in 1725, was a significant development; it was one of the first organs specifically intended for non-liturgical use.

It was Balbastre who in 1760 was appointed organist at the Concert Spirituel. He was born in Dijon and received lessons from Claude Rameau, Jean-Philippe's younger brother. Later he succeeded him as organist of Saint-Etienne in Dijon. In 1750 he settled in Paris where he took composition lessons from Jean-Philippe. In 1759 the first book with harpsichord pieces was printed; it is the only of its kind which has come down to us. In 1770 a collection of four suites of NoŽls was printed, and in 1779 a set of quartets for keyboard and instruments. It is known that in later years he often improvised at the organ, and even in church he played opera transcriptions. This has contributed to the not always positive reception of his oeuvre. He is often considered a representative of the decline of the French harpsichord school. 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."

Today his NoŽls are almost exclusively performed at the organ. However, the printed edition only mentions the harpsichord and the fortepiano. In a letter to Voltaire, dated 24 November 1774, Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand, wrote: "I am anxious to provide something very special: all my friends in Chanteloup are coming to dinner on Christmas Eve, and I would like to organise a pleasant soirťe for them, with some amusing and cheerful entertainment. I have already contrived to obtain the services of Balb‚tre, who has promised to play a grand suite of noŽls upon his fortepiano. I would like to hear some pretty variations on these songs for grandfather, grandmother and Madame de Gramont". This indicates what this music is about. It has little to do with Christmas as a religious feast, but is merely entertainment for a wide variety of people: in this case the aristocray, in the church of St Roch a more general audience. Therefore Olivier Baumont is undoubtedly right, when he states: "We should not expect this music to possess qualities other than those it actually has. During the latter years of the monarchy, it was considered to be a crime to be boring, lack of humour was thought crude and to be serious was to show poor taste. During this period frivolity had become part of the established way of life (...)".

The four suites include variations on several NoŽls, sometimes two in the form of a rondeau: after the variation(s) on a second tune, the first tune returns. The first suite opens with a prťlude; Baumont decided to open the other three suites with the same piece in transposition. The variations show that we are here in the (early) classical period. Stylistically there are similarities with the variations of composers as Mozart and Haydn. In the first suites we hear some of the more familiar tunes, such as A la venue de NoŽl, Joseph est bien mariť, Quand Jťsus naquit ŗ NoŽl and NoŽl Suisse. In particular the third and fourth suites include variations on lesser-known songs, such as Divine Princesse, Quel dťsordre dans la nature and Fanne coraige, le diale ‚ mor. That shows the value of a complete recording of these suites: one has the opportunity to hear those pieces that are seldom performed in recitals.

Olivier Baumont plays the first two suites on harpsichord and fortepiano. I am not very happy with his decision to alternate between the two instruments within a suite, or even within a single movement. That seems to me rather unnatural, and something which Balbastre himself almost certainly did not. The harpsichord is an original instrument by Benoist Stehlin of 1750, the fortepiano was built by Heinrich Brod in Paris in 1798. The latter may be a little too late for this repertoire. The organ dates from 1741.

This is a reissue of a recording released in 2000. I don't know whether it was still available, or if other recordings of these pieces have been released. Anyway, this reissue is most welcome. Balbastre's variations are most certainly not boring, and Baumont is their excellent advocate. He does exactly what these suites need to make for a nice hour of listening, not only during Christmastide.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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Olivier Baumont

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