The name Claude-Bénigne Balbastre could well ring a bell
even with those who are not really acquainted with French music
of the 18th century. His Noëls are part of the standard repertoire
of organists, and are also often included in concerts and Christmas
discs with choral music, as a kind of interlude. Originally they
were written for any kind of keyboard instrument.
Although he composed some chamber music as well, he is and was
mainly known as an organist and composer of music for keyboard.
In his capacity as organist he played regularly in the Concert
Spirituel in Paris, and in 1760 he was engaged as organist for
three months a year in Notre Dame. In 1756 he had been appointed
organist at St Roch, and here he played his Noëls every year
during Midnight Mass. His playing attracted such huge crowds that
in 1762 the archbishop forbade him to play.
If I am not mistaken Balbastre's reputation is not beyond all
doubt as his music seems to reflect the general decline of the
French keyboard tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries. The
historical accounts of his playing appear to confirm this. The
English music writer Charles Burney heard him play in 1770, and
reported: "He performed in all styles in accompanying the choir.
When the Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each
verse several minuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of
music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or
offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover."
But it would be unfair to judge him by the reports of his playing.
Virtuosity and exuberance are certainly present in the keyboard
pieces which were printed in 1749 and 1759 respectively, and a
certain amount of shallowness in his oeuvre can't be denied. But
this disc gives a broad picture of his keyboard music, and shows
that Balbastre has more to offer than pieces apparently aimed
at creating maximum effect.
His versatility as a composer comes to the fore in the collection
of 1759 which is performed completely here, and contains 17 character
pieces. Although it is not always possible to identify the people
the titles refer to with complete certainty, it is safe to say
that they are personalities from the highest echelons of society.
Balbastre may have been a 'popular' organist, who attracted the
masses to his performances, but he was very much part of the establishment
of the 'ancien régime'.
Balbastre acted as organist to King Louis XVI's brother, and among
his pupils were Marie-Antoinette as well as daughters of French
and foreign dignitaries, like Thomas Jefferson. Because of that
the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 made his career
and even his life quite precarious. He saved his skin by showing
a positive attitude to the new rulers, for instance by composing
variations on the revolutionary song 'La Marseillaise' which was
soon to become the French national anthem. The fact that his daughter
married a man who was closely connected with the revolutionary
regime certainly helped as well. But his career went into decline
nevertheless, and in 1799 he died in poverty.
In his character pieces Balbastre links up with tradition as compositions
of this kind had been written before by François Couperin,
Jacques Duphly, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
But Balbastre's style is often more virtuosic and full of effects
and features considerable contrasts between the various sections.
La de Caze
and La Bellaud
are examples of extraverted
and theatrical pieces, whereas La Ségur
Berryer ou La Lamoignon
are much more intimate and elegant.
There are several pieces with rustic elements, reminiscent of
the musette, the bag-pipe or the hurdy-gurdy.
In particular in the collection of 1749, from which Elizabeth
Farr has chosen eight pieces, we find more regular forms like
dances (gavotte) and sonatas. In her programme notes Ms Farr suggests
the influence of Domenico Scarlatti in this collection, and that
is certainly notable in several pieces. Balbastre transcribed
four instrumental sections, including the overture, from Rameau's
. These are the kind of pieces he also played
in the Concert Spirituel. It shows that Rameau was a very popular
composer at the time. Balbastre and Rameau were also personal
friends. The overture is highly virtuosic and technically demanding,
especially because of the frequently repeated chords, to be played
in a fast tempo.
Balbastre's music is sometimes also forward-looking. A remarkable
piece is La Malesherbe
from the 1759 collection which is
almost Mozartian in character. The Prélude
the very last specimen of a prélude non mesuré
ever composed in France. Stylistically it has not that much to
do with the preludes of the past, though. Therefore it rather
confirms than refutes Balbastre's modernity. Previously recordings
have been made in which some of his music is played on the fortepiano,
and that is certainly a legitimate option.
Elizabeth Farr has opted for the harpsichord, but the choice of
instrument is questionable. It is a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord,
which was built by Keith Hill. From the writings of Charles Burney
we know that Balbastre himself owned a Ruckers harpsichord. He
described the tone of the instrument as "more delicate than powerful".
The tone of the instrument Ms Farr plays is more powerful than
delicate, though. The reason is that Keith Hill hasn't just copied
the Ruckers, but added a 16' stop to it. In the booklet he argues:
"Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg
to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16' stop. (...) Claude
Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer".
Hill admits that this view is not supported by the facts as "no
French harpsichords with 16' stops remain from his time". But
"I wanted to hear what the acoustic effect would be if a Ruckers
type of harpsichord were extended in size by adding a 16' stop,
with its own soundboard in the manner of the Hass family of harpsichord
makers". This combination of Flemish-French (Ruckers) and German
(Hass) elements results in an instrument which is the product
of fantasy, can't be considered a 'copy' and therefore has nothing
to do with historical performance practice.
The very fact that no French harpsichord with a 16' stop has come
down to us as well as the quotation from Burney should have led
to the conclusion that Balbastre's music really doesn't need a
16' stop. Previously harpsichordists have done without it, and
from the recordings I have heard I never got the impression something
was missing. On the contrary, I think the use of the 16' stop
in this recording doesn't do Balbastre's music any favours nor
does it help his reputation as a composer. The exuberant and theatrical
character of many of the pieces can be realised without a 16'
stop quite well, but by using it the effects become exaggerated.
And that only serves to confirm the prejudice that Balbastre's
music is all about superficial effect and lacks depth.
Too often exuberance turns into noise, and contrasts are stretched.
It is also my impression that using a 16' stop forces a slower
tempo. A number of pieces are just a bit too slow. That is certainly
the case with the last item on this disc, the variations on La
which are combined with another revolutionary
. I happen to have known this piece
for many years, since early in his career Ton Koopman often played
it in recitals, and also included it in one of his first recordings.
He played it much faster, and with greater wit than Elizabeth
Farr, whose interpretation is too heavy-handed.
I am in two minds about this recording. On the one hand, I am
glad that Elizabeth Farr has paid attention to Balbastre, and
that Naxos has given her the opportunity to record a broad selection
from his keyboard oeuvre. I also have generally enjoyed her playing,
more so than in previous recordings, especially the disc which
was devoted to Peter Philips (also on Naxos). Only recently she
recorded the keyboard suites by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, which
I have assessed positively. But that disc was also marred because
of the use, in some of the suites, of an instrument which was
never used in France, the lute-harpsichord. Therefore it can't
come as a surprise that Elizabeth Farr has again preferred fantasy
over facts. In both cases I find her choice of instrument ill-judged,
not only from a historical perspective but also from a strictly
musical angle as I have tried to argue. The building and the use
of this particular harpsichord compromise the very principles
of the historical performance practice. Here the personal preferences
of the harpsichord maker and the interpreter override historical
evidence. But that is exactly what the pioneers of historical
performance practice wanted to get rid of, is it not?
Johan van Veen
see also review by Brian
La de Caze
La Monmartel ou la Brunoys
Livre contenant des pièces de différent genre d'orgue
et de clavecin (1749):
Sonata No. 5 in g minor 
Gavotte Rondeau in g minor 
Sonata in G 
Excerpts from Pygmalion
by Jean-Philippe Rameau, arr. Balbastre:
La Berryer ou La Lamoignon
Livre contenant des pièces de différent genre d'orgue
et de clavecin (1749):
Sonata No. 2 in F 
Menuet I & II in A/a minor 
Sonata in F 'Coucou' 
Badine in A 
Sonata No. 6 in F 
Marche des Marseillais et l'air Ça-ira