When thinking about music from France during the 18th
century, I always have in mind portraits of Louis XIV, gold clothing, impressive wig and lavish surrounds. This is the context in which François Couperin, known as Couperin le Grand
- to distinguish him from relatives of the same name - was immersed. There his role was as court musician: always worth remembering when listening to this music. Couperin is a vitally important figure in the development of keyboard music. His L'art de toucher le clavecin
(“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”), a treatise on how to play the harpsichord, is still used by students of the instrument today. At a time when Catholic churches required so much organ music - the booklet notes estimate that the number of pieces that an organist would play on a Sunday could be as many as 100 - improvisation was a crucial part of an organist’s arsenal. The only remaining music by Couperin is the mass on this disc and another mass, known as the Mass for the Parishes. This music gives a fascinating insight into the sort of music Couperin would have improvised.
David Ponsford was incredibly fortunate to be able to gain access to such a wonderfully appropriate instrument. Organs of this period are quite hard to find due to the Revolution. This is a particularly fine specimen. The reed as well as the unequal tuning provide a truly “authentic” sound. If you are unfamiliar with organ music of this period then you are likely to be quite surprised by the very loud reed stops. For example, the Trompette
stop used in the Gloria
is hugely powerful, and the plein jeu
or full organ sound has very high pitched mixtures. Ponsford uses these stops to great effect. The reeds are quite slow at speaking in the lower register and Ponsford slows into the lowest notes to give them the necessary weight and authority. There are a large number of ornaments in this sort of music which are executed with beauty and technical precision. Occasionally I would like a faster tempo, for example in the Basse de Trompette
which, if performed slightly fast, leaves the listener feeling breathless. However, the slower movements, including the Sanctus
are perfectly poised in a reflective and prayerful manner.
The work of Du Mage is entirely represented by the piece on this CD. It is a suite in homage to his teacher Louis Marchand and provides an insight into music beyond Paris during this period. Slightly more angular and expressive than the Couperin, this music is incredibly successfully performed by Ponsford. I especially like the opening movement which harbours the drive and excitement which I would have cherished for the Couperin. To further explore music of this age and nationality I strongly recommend The Silbermann Organs of Ebersmunster
performed by Ann Elise Smoot on JAV with works by Clérambault which adopt quite a different interpretation.
This CD is an excellent introduction for someone who is unfamiliar with music and organs of this period. The organ is the true star here as the sounds are exceptional. Ponsford’s performances are very technically impressive but slightly on the safe side.
Previous review: Dominy Clements