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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "Les Nations - Sonates et Suites de Symphonies en Trio"

Jochewed Schwarz, Emer Buckley, harpsichord

rec: Oct 6 - 7, 13 - 14 & 20 - 24, 2013, Paris, Atelier Von Nagel
Toccata Classics - TOCC 0203 (© 2014) (62'21")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Les Nations

1er Concert Royal in G (menuet en trio) [2]; 3e Concert Royal in A (muzette) [2]; 6e Ordre in B flat (Les Barricades Mistérieuses) [1]; 14e Ordre in D (La Julliet) [2]; 16e Ordre in G (La Létiville) [2]; Les Nations (Second Ordre 'L'Espagnole'; Quatrième Ordre 'La Piémontoise') [3]

Sources: [1] Second livre de pieces de clavecin< 1716/17; [2] Troisiéme livre de piéces de clavecin, 1722; [3] Les nations: sonades et suites de simphonies en trio, 1726

Music for two keyboards is rather rare, if one compares it with music for four hands playing one keyboard. That goes for the baroque period, but also for the 19th century and probably the present time as well. The reason is simple: keyboards - in the baroque era the harpsichord, later the (forte)piano - are relatively expensive instruments. The largest part of music for keyboard has always been intended for amateurs, and most of them can't afford two keyboards. Moreover, they take a lot of space. Music for keyboard à quatre mains, as it is often called, is far more popular, especially as playing together is also a social affair.

However, this disc demonstrates that there is more repertoire for two keyboards than one may think. Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley have not discovered some unknown music, but rather followed the suggestions of François Couperin himself. In the 1720s he published several collections of instrumental music which reflect his preference for the mixture of the French and Italian styles, known as the goûts réünis. Parts of these compositions date from the last decade of the 17th century, but at that time the Italian style was not accepted in France, at least not officially. In fact, many French aristocrats loved Italian music, and that included the Sun King himself. And although Jean-Baptiste Lully, the dominant force in French music life in the second half of the 17th century, had died in 1687, his influence was still noticeable. It was only after the turn of the century that composers felt free to show their appreciation of the Italian taste and include it in their own compositions.

This was also the time when music making became an increasingly popular pursuit among the bourgeoisie. In the salons of aristocrats and wealthy citizens the latest music was performed. The repertoire consisted of vocal music - cantatas, extracts from operas -, chamber music and music for keyboard. It was inevitable that music would be adapted to the circumstances under which it was performed. It was quite common to perform parts of an opera in pocket-size scoring. Instrumental music could be played on the harpsichord, and vice versa. Various composers indicated that their music could be performed that way. The liner-notes to this disc give various examples. Gaspard Le Roux, for instance, suggested that his harpsichord suites could be played by other instruments and on two harpsichords. Couperin indicated the same in some of his harpsichord suites - published as ordres in four books - and in the preface of his Apothéose de Lully which is quoted in the booklet. He states that this piece, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli and "the complete book of trios which I hope to publish next July", can be played on two harpsichords. "I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one".

Considering the indications by Couperin and some of his contemporaries it is rather surprising that so few recordings of this kind have been made as yet. Le Roux's suites have been recorded on two harpsichords, but not - as far as I know - by an instrumental ensemble, and the four Ordres which were published as Les Nations have been recorded here for the first time on two harpsichords. If one knows these pieces in performances by an instrumental ensemble a performance like this is something one has to get used to. However, that doesn't take much time if they are played as here by Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley. These are engaging interpretations by congenial partners on two harpsichords by the same builder, Von Nagel in Paris, in whose workshop the recording was made. Only here and there I found their playing a bit too rigid. I also probably would have liked the miking a little less close, but that is a minor issue.

There are some nice additions to these two suites. Three are taken from the books with harpsichord music, the other two are movements from two Concerts Royaux. Considering the widespread practice of such performances in Couperin's time it would be nice if these concertos were also recorded in their entirety with two harpsichords. For the time being we can at least expect a second disc with the two remaining Ordres from Les Nations, and that is definitely something to look forward to.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Jochewed Schwarz

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