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
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