François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
L’Apothéose de Lully [28:46]
English Chamber Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
Les Nations: Premier ordre: ‘La Françoise’ [18:56]; Deuxième ordre: ‘L’Espagnole’ [27:52]
The Jacobean Ensemble/Thurston Dart
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 1966 (L’Apothéose); Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, 1962 (Les Nations)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 237 2 [75:48]
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 (BIS-CD-1275) 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.
Well played performances from the 1960s of music by one of the great baroque masters still sound well today though supplanted by more recent recordings.