The first decade of the 18th century saw a flow of books of harpsichord pieces being printed in France. In his liner-notes Christophe Rousset lists the composers who published them: Marchand, Dieupart, Clérambault, Dandrieu, Le Roux, Jacquet de la Guerre and Siret. These were all printed before the appearance of the first François Couperin collection. Couperin was to overshadow them all.
Louis Marchand is certainly not an unknown quantity, but he is mainly recognised as a composer of music for organ. He was born in Lyon, and was in Paris at least from 1689. Here he held several positions as organist. In 1706 he was appointed organist of the Chapelle Royale, as successor to Guillaume Gabriel Nivers. He was highly respected as a musician and teacher, but far less as a person. He soon acquired the reputation of being a difficult character, who didn't hesitate to manipulate people to boost his career. As one may expect this fuelled various stories which are difficult to prove. One of them is the famous contest with Johann Sebastian Bach which should have been held in Dresden but never actually took place because Marchand sneaked away. The reasons for this contest are unclear; some suggest these could have been monetary. In 1701 Marchand's marriage was annulled, and his ex-wife pursued him with financial claims. It seems she succeeded in convincing some of his employers to pay her half of his salary. There is a story that Marchand once stopped playing halfway through the King's mass, saying that since he was only paid half of his salary he only needed to play half of the mass.
A large portion of his oeuvre has been lost. The inventory which was made after his death includes a considerable number of manuscripts. These have never shown up. He composed some vocal works: a cantata, some sacred pieces, an opera which is lost and airs which have been included in several anthologies. Otherwise only keyboard works have come down to us. A collection of organ pieces was published after his death. During his lifetime only the two books of harpsichord pieces which Christophe Rousset has recorded, were printed. The first book was published in 1699 and reprinted in 1701, followed by the second book in 1702. It is notable that both books comprised just one suite, whereas most books included various suites in different keys. Rousset also plays three other pieces; only Vénitienne is mentioned in the work-list in New Grove. The booklet doesn't tell us where the other two pieces come from.
Marchand's music is in the tradition of the French clavecinistes which is rooted in the lute school that was dominant in the 17th century. The suites are largely dominated by polyphony and have a pretty austere character. Another feature is the amount of ornamentation composers added to their pieces, and to which performers were expected to add yet more. Rousset points to the difference between Marchand and Rameau in this respect. The latter opts for more transparency, and the amount of ornamentation is much more limited. Rousset has followed the order of the pieces as they are printed. Most of his colleagues opt for placing the chaconne - here there is only one in the Suite in D - at the end. As this is often the longest and most virtuosic piece of a suite this has some logic. It seems composers left it to the interpreter to decide in what order to play the various pieces.
The combination of Marchand and Rameau as well as the choice of the harpsichord was inspired by Lyon. Marchand was born here, Rameau lived there for some time in 1713, and the harpsichord was built there as well. It dates from 1716 and was constructed by Pierre Donzelague, who was born in Brughes and settled in Lyon in 1688. This instrument is notable for its large compass of five chromatic octaves. It has never been changed since its construction and has been restored to playing condition. It produces a strong sound which is emphasized by close miking during the recording.
The harpsichord is well suited to the repertoire, and inspires Christophe Rousset to incisive and technically brilliant performances. The differences between the two suites by Marchand - the second is a little more light-hearted than the first - comes off well. The transparency of Rameau's suite is also convincingly exposed, as Rousset is sparing in his ornamentation. The close miking is the only minus of this recording; I would have preferred a bit more space. The sound of the harpsichord is pretty pregnant; here it is sometimes too obtrusive, in particular in the upper part. It is advisable to turn down the volume control of your equipment.
Even so, the instrument is one of the main attractions of this disc, together with the suites of Marchand which are not that often performed and recorded. This is your chance to hear why he had such a good reputation as a composer of keyboard music.
Johan van Veen