Louis COUPERIN (c.1626-1661)
Pièces de Clavecin - The Complete Harpsichord Works
1. Suite for Harpsichord in G minor
2. Suite for Harpsichord in G major
3. Suite for Harpsichord in E minor
4. Suite for Harpsichord in D minor
5. Suite for Harpsichord in D major
6. Suite for Harpsichord in C minor
7. Suite for Harpsichord in C major
8. Suite for Harpsichord in A minor
9. Suite for Harpsichord in A major
10. Pavane for Harpsichord in F sharp minor
11. Les Carillons de Paris
12. Suite for Harpsichord in F major
13. Suite for Harpsichord in B minor
14. Suite for Harpsichord in B flat major
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
rec. no information given.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907511.14 [4 CDs: 4:55:58]
Louis Couperin was part of a very musical family, and had a dazzling career as organist, harpsichordist and violinist. He died at the young age of 35. Little is known of his life, and only some 200 of his works survive. This set includes all the known harpsichord works with the exception of three pieces in a privately-owned manuscript which, apparently, is being coveted by its owner.
Couperin’s works were not grouped into suites as they are in this set. Performers were expected to arrange them as they wished, and Egarr even gives a nod to the iPod age by suggesting, in the liner-notes, that people “should feel totally free to reshuffle for their own playlist pleasure”.
Egarr plays two different harpsichords by Joel Katzman, built in the 1990s. One is a Ruckers copy made in 1991, and the other a copy of an “anonymous original (probably Jacquet)” from Paris, 1652. He uses a pitch of a’ = 398 Hz, and the temperament is “ordinaire” (quarter-comma meantone). Egarr plays from his own edition of the works. One important point is the use of quill plectra on the harpsichords. Not often used, this gives the music a softer, less strident sound, almost as though it were being played on a velvet harpsichord. The lush sonorities of this music come through beautifully without the fatigue that can set in when listening to harpsichord recordings with the sharp attack of plastic plucking.
I. Suite in C major (A)
II. Suite in C major (B)
III. Suite in C major (B)
IV. Suite in C minor (A)
V. Suite in D major (A)
VI. Suite in D minor (B)
VII. Suite in D minor (B)
VIII. Suite in E minor (A)
IX. Suite in F major (A)
X. Suite in F major (A)
XI. Suite in G major (B)
XII. Suite in G major (B)
XIII. Suite in G minor (B)
XIV. Suite in G minor (A)
XV. Suite in G minor (A)
XVI. Suite in A minor (B)
XVII. Suite in A minor (B)
XVIII. Suite in A minor (B)
XIX. Suite in A major (B)
Pavanne in F# minor (B)
XX. Suite in B minor (A)
XXI. Suite in B-flat major (B)
Les Carillons de Paris (B)

Instrument details
(A) Joel Katzman, Amsterdam, 1991, after Ruckers, Antwerp, 1638
(B) Joel Katzman, Amsterdam, 1995, after an anonymous original
(probably Jacquet), Paris, 1652
Pitch: a’ = 398 Hz / Temperament: ‘ordinaire’ (quarter-comma meantone)
Performing edition prepared by Richard Egarr. The numbering corresponds to Bruce Gustafson’s catalogue of works by Louis Couperin.  
So, on to the music. Couperin is known for his invention of the “unmeasured prelude”, a form of music where the performer chooses the duration of each note. He developed a unique type of notation to score these works, an example of which is reproduced in the liner-notes. These preludes are the antithesis of the rigidity of many baroque works, offering unlimited rubato. Single melodic lines proceed with no counterpoint; performers are presented with waves of notes to be play as they wish. In many ways, this type of music, avant-garde at the time, is still unique. Certainly, some contemporary composers have experimented with similar ways of notating music, but for the 17th century, this was exceptional.
The other pieces are the usual dance movements of that era: courantes, sarabandes, allemandes and gigues, with the occasional gaillarde or passacaille. Couperin’s musical language shifts between the amorphous unmeasured preludes and these more standard forms. However, listening to these works as “suites,” as they are arranged on this set, poses a problem. These are not suites like those of Bach, where similar melodic structures are developed and echoed in the different movements. As mentioned above, these sequences can be organized in any old way, so there is nothing - other than key - holding together the various movements of one of Egarr’s suites. At times, there may be similarities between a couple of pieces, but listening to this music is more demanding than other baroque harpsichord works. This is music to be listened to in small doses; yet the listener is rewarded by its grace and subtle beauty. One thing to try is to make a playlist of all the preludes; that gives a nice set of nearly improvisational music.
Louis Couperin’s music requires more attention than that of some other baroque composers truly to appreciate it. Repeated listenings reveal similarities, subtleties and musical statements that are not apparent on a first listen. This is a beautiful set, with excellent sound, and very convincing performances. Sold at mid-price, this is worth taking a chance on even if you aren’t familiar with this Couperin; you won’t find the same flamboyance encountered with music by the more famous member of the family, François. Instead you will discover a unique style, presented with grace and care.
I’m torn between waxing ecstatic about this music and a certain hesitancy. I’ve known Louis Couperin for some time, notably through Blandine Verlet’s 4-disc set of the “complete” works, a disc by Gustav Leonhardt, and another by Laurence Cummings. Verlet is much more forthright in her performances than Egarr, but her harpsichord sounds harsh and rigid. The Leonhardt recording has poor sound but despite this his mastery comes through quite well. The Cummings recording has lovely, rich sound, but sometimes is overwhelming, especially in those pieces with a lot of ornamentation. In the past, therefore, I’ve never been truly satisfied with any recording I’ve heard. I don’t own Christophe Rousset’s 2-disc overview of Louis Couperin’s works - he said, “For this recording, we have selected the very finest pieces by Louis Couperin. We ruled out the idea of performing all the pieces - that has already been done by some of our eminent colleagues”. Rousset’s sound is comparable to that of Egarr, judging from the samples I was able to listen to on-line.
Egarr manages to find the best of all worlds in this set. The combination of his approach - more laid-back than Verlet, for example - and the luscious sound of his instruments - the use of quill - make this set much more approachable. Again, you certainly don’t want to listen to this in extenso. Instead dip into it from time to time. As you listen, the music may grow on you. You may well find that Louis Couperin is one of the great, forgotten composers, and that Richard Egarr has brought him back to life.
Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville ( http://www.mcelhearn.com ). 
Harpsichord music by a unique composer, played with grace and subtlety, and with beautiful sound.