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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Ombres Errantes - Suites for harpsichord from the 4th Book
22e Ordre in D [20:48]
26e Ordre in F sharp minor [16:32]
20e Ordre in G [20:31]
25e Ordre in E flat/C [16:35]
Mitzi Meyerson (harpsichord)
rec. May 2004, Church 'Zur frohen Botschaft', Berlin, Germany. DDD
GLOSSA GCD 921802 [74:30]

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François Couperin was one of France's most prominent composers in the decades around 1700. Although in many ways he was part of a long tradition of French music, his output shows the increasing influence of Italian music. His keyboard works are considered characteristic of Couperin's musical preference for quiet music and inner expression. But, although he never wrote a composition for the theatre, the programmatic and character pieces in his harpsichord suites are not very different from the way human characters and emotions are portrayed in contemporary theatrical works. From time to time Couperin also gives instructions to the performer as to how to play specific pieces in order to express what he intended. 'Les Tambourins' from the Ordre No. 20, for instance, should be played with "even notes", meaning that 'notes inégales' are out of place here, obviously in order to underline the exotic, non-French origin of this piece.

Couperin wrote 27 harpsichord suites, published as 'Ordres' in four books from 1713 to 1730. This disc brings together four suites from the fourth and last book, which appeared in 1730 after which due to poor health he stopped composing. In the preface he explains the pieces in this book had been finished about three years before. This volume contains more Ordres than the previous four books (8), but fewer pieces. The shortest Ordre is No. 27 (not recorded here) which consists of just four movements, whereas the 2e Ordre from the first book has 23 movements. Other remarkable features in the fourth book are the fact that most pieces are in two parts, and that the upper register of the keyboard is dominant, which gives these Ordres a somewhat lighter touch than the suites in the previous books. Also remarkable is the use of the rare key of F sharp minor (26e Ordre).

The Ordres in this fourth book appear to contain few dances or so it seems. In fact many of the pieces are dances in disguise. For instance, 'La Convalescente' (26e Ordre, No 1) is an allemande, 'La Boufonne' (20e Ordre, No 2) a gigue. In that respect Couperin sticks to tradition. But he breaks with tradition in that no suite begins with a prelude and in this his Ordres differ from almost any suite by his predecessors.

The 22e Ordre which opens this disc is in the key of D major andaccording to Marc-Antoine Charpentier is "joyful and warlike", and that is an appropriate description of the character of this suite. This is especially true of its first movement, 'Le Trophée' (the trophy) in particular, one of the most theatrical in the fourth book. In 'L'Anguille' Couperin brilliantly depicts the writhings of the eel. The last two movements are connected, but also contrasting: in both movements the hands cross each other, but in 'Menuets croisés' they play on different manuals, whereas in 'Les Tours de Passe-passe' both hands play on the same manual.

The 26e Ordre is in f sharp minor - the only suite in this key in all four books. The opening movement, 'La Convalescente', is a description of the process of recovering from illness. The first section contains a chromatic descending bass, probably referring to the illness. Evocative is 'L'Épineuse' (the thorny one) in which the music depicts thorns, effectively using the upper register of the keyboard.

The 20e Ordre starts with 'La Princesse Marie', a homage to Maria Leszczynska, the future Queen of France (wife of Louis XV). As she was of Polish origin this piece, which is in three sections, ends with an 'air au gôut polonois', which is a mazurka. Like the 'tambourins' mentioned before Couperin directs that this piece be played "evenly and well-marked", underlining its foreign character. This suite contains two movements which form a kind of duet between two contrasting characters, 'La Fine Madelon' and 'La Douce Janneton'. The contrast between the two ladies is expressed by the use of dissonances.

The 25e Ordre starts with 'La Visionaire', another theatrical piece which is written in the form of an opera overture. This suite contains dramatic contrasts, as this piece and also the fanfare-like 'La Muse Victorieuse' are very different from more poetic pieces like 'La Monflambert' and 'Les Ombres Errantes', which closes the suite and the disc.

Mitzi Meyerson gives splendid performances. She is well aware of the character of every single piece and expresses their character eloquently. The use of 'notes inégales' is very subtle, as it should be, and accelerandos and rallentandos, which - according to Pierre Mamou in the programme notes - are features of the French taste, are used as means of expression. I wonder, though, why Ms Meyerson uses them in 'Les Tambourins' from Ordre 20, which Couperin specifically requires to be played "with even notes".

This is an exemplary production: some of the finest music Couperin has ever written, excellent performance and recording, a beautiful instrument - a harpsichord by Keith Hill, a copy of a Taskin from 1769 - and a booklet with informative programme notes. Every reason to recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen


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