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Brilliant Classics

Francois COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Complete Chamber Music

CD1 ‘Les Nations’ Volume 1 1st and 2nd ordres [48.28]
CD2 ‘Les Nations’ Volume 2 ‘3rd Ordre ‘L’Impériale’ 4th ordre ‘La Piémontoise’ [48.44]
CD3 Concerts Royaux ; [49.35]
CD4 Les Goûts-réunis Part 1 Concerts 5-8 [55.52]
CD5 Les Goûts-réunis Part 2 Concerts 6-14 [63.32]
CD6 ‘Le Parnasse ou L’Apothéose de Corelli’ and Concert Instrumental sous le titre D’Apothéose de Lully’ [42.16]
CD7 La Sultane; La Superbe; Le Steinquerque; Pièces de Violes (2 suites) Le Rossignol en amour [60.01]
Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
Recorded at the church of Maria Minore, Spring 2004
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92178 1-7 [7 CDs - timings listed above]

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For the first half of his career Couperin had composed entirely either church music or Ordres for solo harpsichord. But in 1722 he became ‘Compositeur ordinaire pour le musique de chamber du roy’, producing music for the King Louis XV’s Sunday afternoon ‘events’. So Couperin’s focus changed for most of the rest of his life; hence this seven volume box of his chamber music. But what music, and how momentous, individual and ground-breaking these works were to become and how fascinating it is to see his style flower and develop, in the all too brief period from 1724-30. This was at the time when had to retire.

If Couperin were still alive he would, I think, be an avid supporter of the EU as in so many of his works he is either attempting to pay homage to the music of other countries like Spain (as in ‘Les Nations’ Suite No. 2). You also find him attempting to combine the French and Italian styles as exemplified in his two revered masters Lully and Corelli, exulting in their differences and revelling in their combination. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the rightly famous and oft-recorded ‘L’Apothéose de Corelli’ and the even more extraordinary ‘L’Apotheose de Lully’. In this latter piece the two composers meet on Mount Parnassus, they are encouraged by the Muses and then make music together. These pieces, for the whole ‘band’ of eleven instrumentalists, take up volume 6 of the seven discs in the box and form the set’s climax.

We are told in the interesting, but all too brief for such an extensive set, programme notes by Jed Wentz himself that "Couperin gives few indications for the instrumentation of his chamber works". He goes on to explain that he bases his orchestration, as it were "on Charpentier’s ‘Sonata for 2 flutes, allemandes, 2 high violins, bass viol, theorbo’ etc". Anyway on the whole this works very well, especially in ‘Les Nations’.

The ‘Concert Royaux’ is Couperin’s first published chamber music (1722). The four suites each have between five and seven brief dance movements, some French, some Italian, some German as was Couperin’s ‘raison d’etre’. Wentz chooses for the first, third and fourth to either mix or contrast the four players on the CD, himself on the traverso flute, Ayako Matsunga on the baroque violin, Job ter Haar on the five string gamba and Michael Borgsted on the harpsichord. All is very effective, but for the third suite it’s as if, bizarrely, some of the musicians went to lunch early. In the first movement, the usual opening prelude is for all four players but the next, an Allemande, is given just to solo harpsichord as also is the following Courante. Next comes a Sarabande marked ‘grave’ which is played here by traverso flute and harpsichord with the flute badly balanced and the tempo too fast, I feel. The comes a Gavotte for solo harpsichord and then a simple, folksy and lovely Musette for harpsichord and gamba. The suite ends with a Chaconne for harpsichord alone. This is a particular pity as this piece includes some nice echo effects. Now we know that Rameau, a few years later, ‘orchestrated’ earlier Clavicin pieces in his ‘Pièces de clavecin en concerts’ but would never have mixed instrumental and solo harpsichord pieces in the same suite. So why is it done by Wentz for just this ‘Concert’? Incidentally I can’t say that I go much on the harpsichord used here (by Titus Crijnen); it sounds far too brittle and also too heavy although this is less noticeable on the other CDs. Of course it may be the recording. Church recordings for Chamber music can often be rather suspect but generally I think the acoustic at Maria Minor Church is helpful and pleasing so it must be the instrument.

Volume 2 consists of ‘Les Nations’ and from this point on the performances become fairly standard and conform to our expectations. Indeed they exceed them as from Volume 3 onwards I was awarded complete and consistent pleasure by the playing and the general level of musical and scholastic approach. That said, I feel that movements marked ‘tendre’ or ‘gravement’ etc are often played too quickly and sometimes rather insensitively.

By the time we reach volume 4 we arrive at Couperin’s next published chamber work (1724). The first item is the fifth suite and now Couperin uses the title ‘Les Goûts-réunis’ (‘Goûts’ can be happily translated as ‘tasteful’) and he writes nine suites or ‘concerts’. These are sonatas with continuo and they are played here by flute (suites 5 and 7) and oboe (suite 6) with the eighth suite consisting of ten short movements divided between the two instruments. These suites consist of French dances like the Sarabande, German ones including a rather testy Fugue in the 7th suite and Italian ones like a Sicilienne, also in suite 7.

CD5 has the remaining six ‘concerts’ and are neatly divided with the traverse flute taking on the 10th and 14th concerts, the baroque violin, the 9th and 11th. The 12th is played, entertainingly by just the five-stringed cello and the gamba and even better the 13th by the bassoon and the gamba. So there is considerable variety enabling continuous listening if that seems desirable.

Some highlights of the set as a whole for me are; ‘Les Nations’ (published in 1726) the ‘Second Ordre’ entitled ‘L’Espagnole’ listen especially for the delicious ‘affectueusement’ (movement 3) the earthy ‘vivrement et marqué’ (movement 7) and the impressive final ‘Passacaille nobilement’. Also memorable is the entire ‘ordre’ number 4 ‘La Piémontoise’ which in its sequence of fourteen brief dances is an even stronger reminder of the Opera-Ballets of Lully than other sets, although the performers remind us, especially by the subtle rallentandos at the end of phrases that this is music not for dancing but for listening. Finally the last disc ends with the wonderful ‘Le rossignol en amour’ played here by Jed Wentz, unaccompanied on the transverse flute. This piece was also presented by Couperin for keyboard in his ‘Pièces de Clavecin’ collection of 1722 (Book 3) but here makes a gentle and unassuming end to the entire enterprise.

The instruments used are in some cases made ‘after’ the great makers of the time but others like the baroque archlute played by Michiel Niessen is an authentic 17th Century Italian instrument. Whatever their antecedents their combination mostly works very pleasingly.

The recordings, with the few exceptions mentioned above, are clear and beautifully focused.

Gary Higginson

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