Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harpsichord Suites: in d; in g.
Harpsichord Suite in a
Christophe Rousset, (hpd)
AMBRONAY AMY032 (69:20)
Vivid myths die hard. Palestrina did not save polyphonic music at the Council of Trent. Mozart did not tell Emperor Joseph II that
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
had just the right number of notes. Louis Marchand did not flee from a contest at organ improvisation with
Bach, in Dresden in 1717. Though this was circulated by German nationalist sources for years, late 20th-century scholarship determined that Marchand wasn’t in the German States at the time, and there’s no evidence of such a challenge having been issued, much less accepted. But the truth is often dull, and a good piece of fiction has traction to rival Caterpillar’s.
Though enough background material exists to confirm Marchand’s character as arrogant and impatient, he was regarded in his native France as an organist without peer, praised for his technique and taste. Writer and academician Pierre-Louis d’Aquin de Château-Lyon considered him less artful than Couperin and more natural—in the symbolic language of the times meaning that Marchand’s music was less “infected” with
and Italianate qualities. Rameau greatly admired him as well. Cuthbert Girdlestone, in his
Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work
, was inclined to take seriously a point mentioned in the
Mercure de France
’s obituary notice, that the composer lived opposite a priory on Paris’s Rue des Cordeliers in his youth primarily for the chance to hear Marchand regularly perform.
Marchand issued two books of harpsichord music: the first in D Minor in 1699, the second in G Minor in 1702. Each consists of only one suite, following Lebègue’s structure of prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, then optional pieces (including one powerful chaconne in the first book). Later in life, the composer is known to have written much else that no longer exists—more harpsichord music, organ music, sacred choral works, and at least one opera,
Pyrame et Thisbé
—but composers of the day distrusted the Parisian publishing industry, which had already become a byword for parsimony, unscrupulous dealings, and editorial carelessness. Many manuscripts weren’t published, and much was lost to time.
Given the quality of the suites, it is to be regretted that Marchand chose not to publish more. They are
, at least where French harpsichord music is concerned. The French, essentially conservative character of the music is never in doubt, but most of the pieces point less to the instrument’s ancestor, the lute, and the
that was then commonly applied, than to the organ loft where Marchand ruled. Independent, simultaneously voiced lines and close, imitative textures abound in many pieces, such as the D-Minor Suite’s gigue, and the free inversion employed in the theme that leads off the second part of that same gigue was to show up as well in several of Bach’s works, such as his French Suites. While Bach could have easily developed this idea on his own, he was a voracious collector and reader of scores, who knew his Vivaldi and Couperin—even engaging in correspondence with the latter (it supposedly ended up being used to line jam-pot lids). Marchand’s busy, relatively heavy-textured harpsichord works might have appealed to Bach on that count alone, leaving aside their elegance and invention.
Christophe Rousset is, as ever, technically adroit and stylistically unapproachable. His generally lively tempos keep the gravitas of these pieces from sinking beneath its own weight, while the subtle use of rubato is never allowed to impede the musical flow. Occasionally he pushes the music uncomfortably, and in one piece goes overboard: the aforementioned D-Minor Chaconne, paced so rapidly as to lose all flexibility of phrasing, and sounding inordinately hectic in a later episode that halves note values; but that is the only movement that stands out forcefully in this fashion. By contrast, the G-Minor Sarabande is given a spacious reading that is consistent with the character of the dance, and emphasizes Marchand’s expressive gifts. I have not heard Davitt Moroney (Plectra 151766) in this music, though I wish Blandine Verlet’s old recording on Astrée E7736 would come back into print, as she’s every bit as good as Rousset throughout, and gets the grandeur of the Chaconne. Ironically, she uses the same instrument as Rousset, a fine Donzelague from 1716, with a focused, bright sound that lacks nothing for sweetness.
There’s much to enjoy here from a musician who clearly loves this music, and the music itself repays close attention.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
The first decade of the 18th century saw a flow of books of harpsichord pieces being printed in France. In his liner-notes Christophe Rousset lists the composers who published them: Marchand, Dieupart, Clérambault, Dandrieu, Le Roux, Jacquet de la Guerre and Siret. These were all printed before the appearance of the first François Couperin collection. Couperin was to overshadow them all.
Louis Marchand is certainly not an unknown quantity, but he is mainly recognised as a composer of music for organ. He was born in Lyon, and was in Paris at least from 1689. Here he held several positions as organist. In 1706 he was appointed organist of the Chapelle Royale, as successor to Guillaume Gabriel Nivers. He was highly respected as a musician and teacher, but far less as a person. He soon acquired the reputation of being a difficult character, who didn't hesitate to manipulate people to boost his career. As one may expect this fuelled various stories which are difficult to prove. One of them is the famous contest with Johann Sebastian Bach which should have been held in Dresden but never actually took place because Marchand sneaked away. The reasons for this contest are unclear; some suggest these could have been monetary. In 1701 Marchand's marriage was annulled, and his ex-wife pursued him with financial claims. It seems she succeeded in convincing some of his employers to pay her half of his salary. There is a story that Marchand once stopped playing halfway through the King's mass, saying that since he was only paid half of his salary he only needed to play half of the mass.
A large portion of his oeuvre has been lost. The inventory which was made after his death includes a considerable number of manuscripts. These have never shown up. He composed some vocal works: a cantata, some sacred pieces, an opera which is lost and airs which have been included in several anthologies. Otherwise only keyboard works have come down to us. A collection of organ pieces was published after his death. During his lifetime only the two books of harpsichord pieces which Christophe Rousset has recorded, were printed. The first book was published in 1699 and reprinted in 1701, followed by the second book in 1702. It is notable that both books comprised just one suite, whereas most books included various suites in different keys. Rousset also plays three other pieces; only
Vénitienne is mentioned in the work-list in
New Grove. The booklet doesn't tell us where the other two pieces come from.
Marchand's music is in the tradition of the French
clavecinistes which is rooted in the lute school that was dominant in the 17th century. The suites are largely dominated by polyphony and have a pretty austere character. Another feature is the amount of ornamentation composers added to their pieces, and to which performers were expected to add yet more. Rousset points to the difference between Marchand and Rameau in this respect. The latter opts for more transparency, and the amount of ornamentation is much more limited. Rousset has followed the order of the pieces as they are printed. Most of his colleagues opt for placing the chaconne - here there is only one in the
Suite in D - at the end. As this is often the longest and most virtuosic piece of a suite this has some logic. It seems composers left it to the interpreter to decide in what order to play the various pieces.
The combination of Marchand and Rameau as well as the choice of the harpsichord was inspired by Lyon. Marchand was born here, Rameau lived there for some time in 1713, and the harpsichord was built there as well. It dates from 1716 and was constructed by Pierre Donzelague, who was born in Brughes and settled in Lyon in 1688. This instrument is notable for its large compass of five chromatic octaves. It has never been changed since its construction and has been restored to playing condition. It produces a strong sound which is emphasized by close miking during the recording.
The harpsichord is well suited to the repertoire, and inspires Christophe Rousset to incisive and technically brilliant performances. The differences between the two suites by Marchand - the second is a little more light-hearted than the first - comes off well. The transparency of Rameau's suite is also convincingly exposed, as Rousset is sparing in his ornamentation. The close miking is the only minus of this recording; I would have preferred a bit more space. The sound of the harpsichord is pretty pregnant; here it is sometimes too obtrusive, in particular in the upper part. It is advisable to turn down the volume control of your equipment.
Even so, the instrument is one of the main attractions of this disc, together with the suites of Marchand which are not that often performed and recorded. This is your chance to hear why he had such a good reputation as a composer of keyboard music.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Suite for harpsichord in G minor by Louis Marchand
Christophe Rousset (Harpsichord)
Venue: Decorative Arts Museum of Lyon, France
Length: 1 Minutes 17 Secs.
Venitienne, for harpsichord by Louis Marchand
Christophe Rousset (Harpsichord)
Venue: Decorative Arts Museum of Lyon, France
Length: 1 Minutes 49 Secs.
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