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"Majestie - Music for the Sun King's Court"

Poeticall Musicke

rec: Jan 2014, Esher, St George's Church
Veterum Musica - [no number] (© 2014) (68'01")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Couperin
Scores Lalande

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Premier Concert Royal in Gb [1]; Deuxième Concert Royal in Db [1]; Troisième Concert Royal in Ab [1]; Michel Richard DE LALANDE (1657-1726): Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Mercredy Saint (S 118)a; Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Vendredy Saint (S 124)a

[1] François Couperin, Troisiéme livre de piéces de clavecin, 1722

Rosemary Galton, sopranoa; Rafael Font, b; Kate Conway, viola da gamba; Joseph Chesshyre, spinet

At first sight the programme for this disc may seem an unlikely mix. On the one hand we hear three instrumental works by François Couperin, on the other two Leçons de Ténèbres by Michel Richard de Lalande. However, there are good reasons to bring them together. Both composers were in the service of the court in Versailles, and the pieces recorded here were specifically written for performance there. Both composers were representatives of the goût réuni - a mixture of French and Italian elements. That said, the music performed here is different in this respect.

François Couperin published a collection of four instrumental suites or concerts under the title Concerts Royaux in 1722. It was to be followed in 1725 by a second volume of ten further pieces of this kind, under the title Les Goûts Réünis. It is very likely that Couperin started to compose them from 1714 onward. The three concerts which are played here don't show strong Italian influences but are rather French in character. They open with a prélude which is followed by a number of dances such as allemande, courante, sarabande and gavotte. The first concert closes with a menuet en trio, the second includes two fugal movements (allemande fuguée, air contrefugué) and closes with Echos. The third concert has a muzette and ends with a chaconne legere. The chaconne was one of the most popular forms in France under the ancien régime: almost every opera included a chaconne, mostly in the last act. It also appears in many instrumental suites, as is the case here.

These concerts are performed here as pieces for violin and basso continuo. Couperin didn't indicate the instrumentation for these works. They were printed on two staves which suggests a performance on the harpsichord, and that is confirmed by the composer himself who said that they were suited for this instrument. However, he added that they could also be played on the violin, the oboe, the viola da gamba and the bassoon. He himself reports that he played them with some virtuosos on these very instruments, himself playing the harpsichord. Today they are mostly performed with a mixture of these instruments, playing partly colla parte and partly in alternation. Sometimes the single treble line is played by a pair of the same instruments. Obviously the choice of instruments has a considerable influence on the impression they make. With an ensemble of various instruments - and especially if played with pairs of them - these pieces receive a rather orchestral character. These performances with a single violin lend them a kind of intimacy, as they could have sounded in the private chambers of the King. That intimacy is even enhanced by the use of a spinet rather than a two-manual harpsichord in the basso continuo.

This is the only questionable aspect of this recording. The liner-notes ignore the issue, but I would have liked to read any historical evidence that such instruments were used in France in Couperin's time. According to New Grove very few French instruments have survived, probably dating from the 17th century. That could be a coincidence but it also could be an indication that it was not that widespread in France as it was elsewhere. It was especially popular in England where it replaced the virginal at the end of the 17th century. It is also an English spinet from around 1750 by an anonymous builder which is played here. It suits the intimate character of these performances but it has too little presence, especially in comparison with the more penetrating sound of the violin. As a result the balance between the upper part and the bass is less than ideal.

Like Couperin Michel Richard de Lalande was trained as an organist. From early on there was a connection between the two. In 1679 Couperin's father Charles died and Lalande was asked to take his position as organist of St Gervais until François had reached the age of eighteen. In 1690 Lalande expressed his admiration for Couperin's two organ masses which he assessed as "very beautiful". In 1683 he was appointed sous-maître at Louis XIV's court. From then on he made his career at the court. At the end of the century he was maître de musique de la chambre.

His Leçons de Ténèbres are part of a long-standing tradition in France. Such pieces were frequently performed during Holy Week, and became so popular that people had to pay to attend the performances. They were often sung by singers from the Opéra which was closed during the Lent period. Lalande composed nine settings, three for each of the last days before Easter. However, only the third Leçons of each of the three days has been preserved. It is not known when they were written, but it is known that one of Lalande's daughters sang them for the King when she was just fifteen years old. It is also known that Lalande lost his two daughters due to smallpox in 1711. It proves that the Leçons were performed at the court and probably written for it in the first place.

They are scored for soprano and basso continuo. It is obvious to use an organ in the basso continuo - as in the recording with Emma Kirkby and Agnès Mellon - but here again a spinet is played. In character they show strong Italian influences. They are not devoid of the typical French elegance and balance, but some passages are quite dramatic. That is especially the case in the closing phrase of the Lamed section from the 3e Leçon du Mercredy Saint which speaks about the Lord's "fierce anger", and the opening of the next section, headed by the Hebrew letter Mem: "From on high he sent fire". In the 3e Leçon du Vendredy Saint the opening phrase, "Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us", is repeated in the middle and at the end which has quite a dramatic effect.

Rosemary Galton brings out these features convincingly. I have greatly enjoyed her performance which is stylish and expressive. She avoids any vibrato, varies the dynamics and uses a historical pronunciation of Latin. The text is always clearly understandable. The performances of Couperin's Concerts Royaux are just as good as Rafael Font delivers a differentiated interpretation.

The Leçons de Ténèbres by Lalande are not that well known, and Couperin's Concerts royaux are not that often played with only one violin. That makes this disc an attractive proposal, also because of the generally good quality of the performances, my minor reservations notwithstanding.

There are some unanswered questions about the availability of this disc. The rear inlay refers to a URL that is not available. The ensemble's website refers to Veterum Musica, and here it is claimed that the disc is available as a free download. I couldn't quite find out how it works. It looks like if you want to download you have to pay after all: if you click on "digital album" you are asked to mention your price. It seems that this can include zero, but I have not tested it. I have sent an e-mail asking for an explanation, but I haven't received an answer as yet. So I leave it to the interested to find out for themselves.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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