François Couperin, often described as 'Couperin le grand',
was the nephew of Louis, and he ranks as the most important
member of this famous musical dynasty. It was towards the close
of the 19th century that his compositions began to
make his reputation posthumously. However during his lifetime
his talents were recognised when in 1702 he received the formal
honour of 'Chevalier de l'Ordre de Latran'.
With L’Apothéose de Lully Couperin reaches
to a high level of inspiration in paying homage to a master
of the previous generation. The pacing of the whole piece across
a duration of some thirty minutes is thoughtfully achieved,
and each movement is described programmatically in the score.
Some performers, for example Charles Medlam with London Baroque
provide these idiomatic introductions in French, and they do
communicate both clearly and directly, adding something to the
experience the music offers the listener. In general terms the
ebb and flow of the suite is effortlessly inspired and endlessly
imaginative, and my original review in November 2003 described
Medlam and his players as being ‘at the top of their form’.
But clarity of articulation, sensitive stylistic phrasing and
well chosen tempi can be found also on the present reissue from
the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Raymond
Leppard, who did so much to promote the cause of the baroque
repertoire a generation or so ago. That’s the point, however.
Since the early 1960s when Leppard’s performance was recorded,
performing practices in baroque music have changed, not least
in the instruments themselves, including most tellingly the
use of gut strings. As a result Leppard, however dedicated his
standards of musicianship, lacks the authentic feel that Medlam
and other recent performers achieve.
This reissue is nicely presented in pleasing sound, with good
notes by Charles Cudworth, but for some unknown reason the banding
of tracks is ill-judged if not bizarre. There are fifteen numbers
making up L’Apothéose de Lully, so why on
earth band them into five tracks?
Thankfully such strictures do not apply to the two ‘ordres’
from Les Nations which form the remainder of the disc.
Here each movement is duly accorded its own numbered track,
making it possible for the listener to find his bearings. The
excellent notes are by Thurston Dart, who directs the performances
from the keyboard. The Jacobean Ensemble, as they called themselves,
were distinguished indeed. Alongside Dart, the other members
were Desmond Dupré on gamba and the violinists Carl Pini
and Neville Marriner.
The selection here comprises half of Couperin’s Les
Nations: the Troisième and Quatrième ordres,
L’Impériale andLa Piemontoise, are
missing. However, since each ordre is a substantial suite of
music in its own right, this is not so much of a problem. Those
wanting the entire collection can find it well performed, for
example, on ‘original’ instruments by Musica Antiqua
Köln and Reinhard Goebel (Archiv 427 164: 2 CDs).
Admitting the obvious caveat that this reissue contains only
half of Couperin’s completed project, there need be no
complaints about the music-making itself. The issue of the instruments
themselves is still there but the playing is beautifully exercised
and tastefully judged. Likewise the balancing of the ensemble
has been skilfully managed, so that Dupré’s contribution
on gamba makes that subtle and important contribution that chamber
music such as this will always demand. Dart’s realisation
of the harpsichord part is splendidly imaginative, while Marriner
and Pini make an expert team at the top of the texture.
The expert handling of ornaments lies at the centre of these
pleasing performances, and this sensitivity to style was absolutely
central to Couperin’s priorities when he wrote the music,
concerned as he was to integrate the best of international musical
characteristics in the cause of his art.