Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pièces de Clavecin
Richard Egarr (hpd)
HARMONIA MUNDI 907511.14 (4 CDs: 300:14)
One of the earliest and most successful centers of music publication was Paris, and it retained this distinction for several hundred years. But despite the sheer volume of music that was turned out—not infrequently without its composers’ permission and without their receiving any fee, as both Telemann and Haydn knew well—it was also highly selective. Works that could be expected to sell to a large audience
went quickly through several editions, while music with a small audience was largely ignored. For the rest, handwritten manuscripts must suffice. Louis Couperin’s harpsichord music survives because of these—and mainly thanks to one, the so-called Bauyn Manuscript, compiled around 1690, and now held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It is a sobering thought that much of our knowledge of scores of what we generically term early music depends upon the often haphazard survival of an occasional compilation, created for private enjoyment by one or more transcribers so many years ago, and based on originals that have long since vanished.
With that in mind, Richard Egarr gives us all the known harpsichord music of Louis Couperin, save for three movements in a manuscript currently owned by a collector and performer who refuses to share. It’s a huge undertaking, all the more to be savored in that the uncle of François
has been poorly served on records relative to the quality of his keyboard output. His 16 surviving unmeasured preludes have long been a subject of praise, in particular his famous Prelude in A Minor “à l’imitation de Monsieur Froberger.” But the various structural solutions he finds to binding the parts of these pieces are in their own way as ingenious as the music itself, and as little noted as the range of expressive effect he achieves in his less celebrated dance movements. This Couperin does not have the intimacy, breadth of fancy, or absurdist wit of his nephew, but there is a humor, an inventiveness, and a reflective melancholy that emerges from nearly everything on these discs.
If Couperin did form suites out of his harpsichord music, that fact hasn’t survived. Modern performers customarily create their own out of pieces in one key. Egarr does this here, and when several movements tend to sound like variations on a theme, such as three short courantes in G Major, he perceptively places them in quick succession. The size and type of pieces that make up each of these 21 suites is unique, but that is to be expected. Varying from two to 13 numbers, they reflect a lack of consistency very much in keeping with French keyboard music at that point in its development.
Egarr’s performances are uniformly excellent. Compared to Huguette Grémy-Chauliac (Ligia Digital 0101170-06), which I reviewed in
earlier this year, he tends more to favor the lute’s supple
, and to provide more ornamentation upon phrase repeats. The result is a matter of differences in taste rather than comprehension or technique. It’s easier to hear in this recording the music of the great lutenists Denis and Ennemond Gaultier, who directly influenced Couperin’s mentor, Jacques de Chambonnières. The dance movements consequently sound more abstract under Egarr’s fingers than they do under Grémy-Chauliac’s, whose performances offer more perceived consistency of rhythm. Their approaches are otherwise often very similar—save in the Chaconne or Passacaille in G Minor that Grémy-Chauliac sees as a proudly strutting work, while Egarr’s much slower, more musing treatment makes of it something considerably more somber.
Two harpsichords are employed throughout these discs. Both reconstructions by Joel Katzman, one is based upon a sweeter-sounding Parisian model of the mid 16th century, probably by Claude Jacquet, father of the outstanding composer and harpsichordist Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. The other is based on a 1638 Ruckers, with a typically clear, very resonant sound, and a particularly fine bass. Tuning is quarter-comma meantone, which was sometimes referred to during Couperin’s life as
. The recorded sound is close and possesses a nice, crisp resonance. It avoids both the over-indulgent mush of over-reverberant sound sometimes heard, on the one hand, and the aural equivalent of the Sahara, on the other.
In conclusion, this is a real feast for fans of French Baroque harpsichord music, and for those who value Louis Couperin in particular. Strongly recommended, with a likely inclusion in my Want List later this year.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Les Carillons de Paris by Louis Couperin
Richard Egarr (Harpsichord)
Written: 17th Century; France
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