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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
La Sultanne
La Sultanne, Sonate en quatuor in d minor [09:24]
Première Suite for viola da gamba and bc in e minor [23:40]
15e Ordre in a minor: Le Dodo où l'amour au berceau [05:20]
Deuxième Suite for viola da gamba and bc in A [14:52]
La Superbe, Sonate en trio in A [07:28]
Capriccio Stravagante: Manfredo Kraemer, Katharina Wolff (violin), Jay Bernfeld (viola da gamba - solo), Carol Lewis (viola da gamba), Michel Murgier (basse de violon), Mike Fentross (theorbo), Skip Sempé (harpsichord)
rec. July-August 1993, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. DDD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 74321 935452 [61:44]

François Couperin was one of the key figures in music life in Paris and at the court at Versailles from the 1690s onwards. Coming from a family of organists, his first official position was that of organist at St Gervais in Paris, which he inherited from his father. In 1693 he became organist of the Chapelle du Roy. His main instrument was the harpsichord. He was active as a harpsichord teacher in aristocratic circles. Even before being appointed 'ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roi pour le clavecin' in 1717, he had already been asked by Louis XIV to play regularly in chamber concerts at court. For these concerts he composed some of his most famous pieces, like the 'Concerts Royaux' and the 'Nouveaux Concerts'.
 
This disc opens and ends with two sonatas which were written in the first half of the 1690s and were never published. Couperin is known for being a champion of the 'goûts-réünis', the mixture of Italian and French style, which he demonstrated so impressively in the 'Concerts Royaux' and the 'Nouveaux Concerts'. The first signs of this preference can be found in these early pieces. The French style is represented by the first two movements (fast - slow), which are modelled after the French overture, and in the description of the individual movements: 'gayement', 'gravement', 'vivement' etc. It is a shame these titles are omitted in the tracklist. At the same time these sonatas follow the Italian style - modelled by Corelli - with their sequence of slow and fast movements, and the strong contrasts between and within movements. Some of these have an almost theatrical character, something one doesn't find very often in French music. The sonatas are played with great intensity. An interesting aspect is the use of two original violins from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a Stradivari of 1691 and an Amati of 1669; each delivers a gorgeous sound.
 
Couperin composed a large number of harpsichord suites, called 'Ordres', which contain many character pieces. One of them is 'Le Dodo où l'amour au berceau', a kind of lullaby. It is played here with strings only, but fails to impress in this scoring. It is the only disappointing item here.
 
Forming the core of the programme is the two suites Couperin wrote for the viola da gamba. They were published in 1728, the year of the death of France's greatest viol player and composer, Marin Marais. These are the last important compositions for this instrument, which in Couperin’s time was quickly going out of fashion as the growing influence of the Italian-style favoured the violin and the cello. It lasted about two centuries before these suites were rediscovered, mainly because on the title page the composer is only referred to with his initials: "Mr. F.C."
 
The suites are generally considered some of the best music ever written for the instrument. They are in strictly French style, beginning with an overture, which is followed by a sequence of dances. It is only the first suite, though, which follows the traditional pattern of the suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, with an additional gavotte and closing with a passacaille or chaconne. In the second suite the overture is followed by a fuguette and two character pieces - as in Couperin's harpsichord suites -: 'pompe funèbre' and 'La Chemise blanche'. The individual movements stand out because of their rhythmic contrasts (Suite No. 1, courante) and expressive harmony (Suite No. 2, pompe funèbre). There is also plenty of virtuosity, in particular in the last movements of both suites (Suite No. 1, passacaille où chaconne; Suite No. 2, La Chemise blanche). Jay Bernfeld delivers splendid performances. His virtuosity is impressive, but he also catches the expressivity of the slow movements very well, as in the 'pompe funèbre' of the 2e Suite, with the addition of the 'très gravement', and the 'sarabande grave' of the 1er Suite.
 
This is an outstanding recording, which brings some of the best pieces from Couperin's oeuvre. Even those who already have all of Couperin's ensemble pieces on their shelf - for instance Musica ad Rhenum's excellent complete recording (Brilliant Classics) (see review) - should not miss this disc, in particular as it is reissued at budget price.
 
Johan van Veen

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