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Couperin: Harpsichord Works / Borgstede

Release Date: 10/03/2006 
Label:  Brilliant Classics   Catalog #: 93082   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  François Couperin
Performer:  Michael Borgstede
Number of Discs: 11 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

COUPERIN Complete Harpsichord Works Michael Borgstede (hpd) BRILLIANT 93082 (11 CDs: 677:35)

As made clear in these pages previously, I’m normally no enthusiast of bulk box collections, which all too often seem designed to pander more to collecting instincts than to have any truly musical function. Nevertheless, pragmatism dictates that each case must be taken on its own merit, so when this set containing one of the pillars of the Baroque keyboard repertoire arrived, it seemed worth investigating, Read more particularly since the minimal presentation does enough to suggest that it was a project untaken with serious intent. A sampling soon revealed that Michael Borgstede, who has previously recorded all the chamber music of Couperin with Musica ad Rhenum (also for Brilliant), would indeed be an expert and reliable guide through the long, and what transpired to be richly rewarding journey.

Couperin’s four books of harpsichord works occupied him throughout his composing life, the first publication appearing in 1713 when he was 45 (although many of the pieces were doubtless composed somewhat earlier), while the last dates from 1730, by which time the aging composer was suffering from ill health. Each book is divided into a number of suites, or ordres as Couperin termed them, the sequence of numbering running throughout the four books. Tracking throughout the entire corpus, one senses a clear development from the diffuse early ordres to carefully structured groups of pieces linked by both tonality and subject matter or mood. It seems clear that from the second book on, Couperin fully intended that each ordre should be performed complete.

Although the earliest ordres include a number of generally tiny abstract movements in the traditional dance forms, the bulk of Couperin’s harpsichord music consists of the kind of genre piece much loved by French Baroque composers. These works range in size from little portraits lasting less then two minutes to large-scale structures playing for up to 10 minutes. They cover an astonishingly wide variety of topics and moods, ranging from pen-portraits (generally of women, who have by no means all been positively identified) through the many pieces with theatrical connections, to nature descriptions and miniature tone poems depicting one or more moods. One of the most salient characteristics is the Watteauesque feeling of ambiguity so often conveyed, that feeling of melancholy lying beneath the mask of gaiety. For a famous example one needs look no further than L’Arlequine ( ordre 23/iii), the sensitive treatment of which has frequently been compared with Watteau’s celebrated Portrait of Gilles , the sad clown of the commedia dell’arte . Yet along with this, there are pieces that are unambiguously witty, grandly majestic, sensual, or . . . the list is endless.

Borgstede proves himself technically excellently equipped to cope with such varying demands. His fingerwork is strong, allowing him to execute Couperin’s more virtuosic music, often of toccata-like character, with a fluency and keen rhythmic articulation that rarely goes astray. More important, he has thoroughly assimilated the French keyboard style, recognizing the integral importance of the profuse ornamentation, which is played with a clarity that never obscures the composer’s sometimes-dense counterpoint. Borgstede also proves himself capable of being a poet, playing some of the more restrained pieces with an inner concentration and sensitivity that are richly rewarding. Inevitably, with a project of this size, there are going to be times when a critic will part company with the performer. In some of the earlier orders particularly, tempos sometimes feel just that bit rushed (Borgstede’s tempos throughout Book 1 are consistently quicker than those of Christophe Rousset on Harmonia Mundi); in a few instances there is the feeling that the player is skating over the surface of the music, probably inevitable in a project of this size; and there are a few question marks over such matters as registration and the use of rubato. But these are mostly subjective matters that certainly do not detract from the deep integrity so obviously engrained in the performances.

Employing French unequal temperament tunings, Borgstede utilizes two instruments, a colorfully sonorous instrument based on a Johann Ruckers of 1638 for the first three books, while for Book 4 he moves to a lighter-toned copy of a Hemsch of 1754, both the work of Titus Crijnen. At first I found the Hemsch a little lightweight after the richness of the Ruckers, but became accustomed to it, and it is suited to some of the more galant pieces that pervade the earlier ordres of Book 4.

The following are brief comments on individual books culled from my extensive notes:

Premier Livre. As already noted, the first two ordres include some fairly inconsequential dance movements, but already there are hints of solemn grandeur in the tombeau-like Sarabande la majestueuse ( ordre 1/iv), and of enchantment in the evocation of gently waving flowers in La feurie ou la tendre Nanette (1/xvii), a good example of Borgstede’s generally persuasive way with rubato. Les idées heureuses (2/xvii) is a serene instance of Couperin’s adaptation of the French lutenists style brisé , a pervasive influence, especially in the earlier books.

Second Livre. There is little doubt that Couperin is now conceiving each ordre as a thematic entity. Ordre 7, for example, revolves around pieces devoted to a single character, the dancer, singer, and harpsichordist Françoise-Charlotte de Sonneterre, concluding with the reposeful, but also sensual rondeau Les amusemens . Elsewhere in this book one finds the elevated nobility of the great Passacaille (8/ix) and the extroversion of the battle-like pieces of ordre 10, among which La triomphante (i) is treated by Borgstede to an exhilaratingly virtuosic performance.

Troisième Livre. It opens with Ordre 14, devoted to the sights and sounds of nature. Le rossignol-en-amour (i) is an intensely poetic nocturnal, droopingly romantic in a beauty realized with sensitivity by Borgstede, although I’m not sure why he felt the necessity to slow up at the end of each section. Ordre 15 is pervaded by a rustic quality, but also includes La douce et piquante (xviii), another elegiac, romantic piece, while No. 17 opens with one of Couperin’s most famous keyboard pieces, the allemande La superbe ou la Forqueray (a portrait of the great viol-player). With ordre 19 Couperin moves into the world of the theater and burlesque, pieces to which Borgstede responds with verve and wit, but which also includes such infinitely sad pieces as La muse-plantine (vi).

Quatrième Livre. The opening ordres (Nos. 20–22) largely maintain the lighter style of those concluding the previous book; indeed, ordre 20 might even appear insubstantial by Couperin’s standards. But as ever with him, there are exceptions. La reine des coeurs (No. 21/i) is as hauntingly lovely as anything written by him, its falling phrases conveying an air of indefinable sadness caught to perfection by Borgstede. Ordre 23 takes us back into the theater and the world of illusion, nowhere better expressed in the extended galanterie of Les gondoles des Délos (No. 4), a piece that instantly evokes all the sophisticated elegance of one of Watteau’s fêtes galantes . The final three ordres may be seen as a summation of Couperin’s keyboard music. They include such masterpieces as La visionaire (25/i), a French overture with a dotted opening of great breadth and humanity, followed by an allegro of great rhythmic verve, and Les ombres errantes (25/v), whose shades dance with a graceful sadness and drooping regret that recalls those of Monteverdi’s Ballo dell’ingrate.

Wisely, Borgstede took his time over this huge body of music, recording it in five groups of sessions spread over 15 months. Adopting a similar policy, I extended my assessment over the whole of one reviewing cycle, returning to it with increasing anticipation after interspersing it with other assignments. It’s a method I’d suggest if you feel tempted to explore this miraculous œuvre in the persuasive company of Borgstede, whose set is excellently engineered throughout. I would urgently recommended it even with a much higher price tag than it carries; it is ridiculously undervalued, leaving no excuse for not investing in an issue that will provide rich rewards for many years to come.

FANFARE: Brian Robins
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Works on This Recording

Pièces de clavecin, Book 1 by François Couperin
Performer:  Michael Borgstede (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1713; Paris, France 
Pièces de clavecin, Book 2 by François Couperin
Performer:  Michael Borgstede (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1717; Paris, France 
Pièces de clavecin, Book 3 by François Couperin
Performer:  Michael Borgstede (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1722; Paris, France 
Pièces de clavecin, Book 4 by François Couperin
Performer:  Michael Borgstede (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1730; Paris, France 

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