Music from the age of Louis XV
Track listing below review
John Kitchen (harpsichord)
rec. 11-12 April 2012, St Cecilia's Hall, University of Edinburgh, UK. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34112 [66:26]
Since the second half of the 17th century the harpsichord was one of the main instruments in France, alongside the viola da gamba. It gradually overshadowed the lute, adopting several features of lute music in the process. In the 18th century a large quantity of harpsichord music was composed and often printed, reflecting the popularity of the instrument among amateurs.
In the course of the century the character of harpsichord music changed quite drastically. The influence of opera made itself felt. Pieces from operas, especially those by Lully, were transcribed for harpsichord. Moreover, composers started to write original pieces of a quite dramatic character. Among the most striking examples are Médée by Duphly and Les Sauvages by Rameau. The second development was that the traditional dances which were part of the suite were gradually replaced by character pieces. One of the first who wrote such pieces was François Couperin. This development comes to the fore in his first book of harpsichord pieces of 1713. It includes still many dances, but also a considerable number of character pieces; some dances are also given titles. In the second book of 1717 from which the pieces on the present disc are taken, dances are almost completely omitted. There is much speculation about exactly what the various titles mean. For his interpretation John Kitchen makes use of a study by Jane Clark, who was able to reveal the meaning of many titles. Even so there remain some which cannot be interpreted with complete certainty. That is the case, for instance, with Les Baricades Mistérieuses, one of Couperin's best-known pieces. It is beautifully played by John Kitchen; I like especially his subtle interpretation of the notes inégales and the slight tempo fluctuations.
Whereas in Couperin's music the titles of character pieces give modern interpreters some problems, in the case of Forqueray it is the identity of the composer which is unsure. Jean-Baptiste published five books under the name of his father Antoine in 1745. They were printed in two versions: one for viola da gamba and basso continuo, the other for harpsichord alone. It has been doubted that these pieces were indeed composed by Antoine. This is for various reasons, one of them the style which seems out of sync with the times in which Antoine was active as a gamba virtuoso. Most of Forqueray's pieces are quite virtuosic. One of the most brilliant is La Leclair, certainly a portrait of the famous violinist. Kitchen's performance is a little too restrained.
Jean-Philippe Rameau presented himself as an opera composer when he was already fifty years of age. However, the music he composed before that time shows his theatrical temperament, and that includes his keyboard works. Several pieces later appeared in his operas, such as Les Sauvages which he adapted for orchestra and included in Les Indes galantes. His keyboard music was more virtuosic than was common at the time. He was also active as a theorist, and his views on harmony which he laid down in his treatise Traité de l'harmonie are demonstrated by L'Enharmonique. In his liner-notes John Kitchen refers to the 'theatrical gestures' in La Triomphante, but in his performance these don't fully come off. Les Sauvages is also a bit too moderate and should have received a more dramatic performance.
The last composer is Jacques Duphly who marks what some performers and scholars consider the gradual decline in the quality of keyboard writing in France. Kitchen quotes the late Gustav Leonhardt who once stated that "Duphly had few truths to tell the world". Having heard all of Duphly's keyboard works I am not sure whether that judgement is completely fair. The decline of keyboard music is more clearly demonstrated in some of the works of Balbastre, and especially the transcriptions of opera pieces, and perhaps also Royer. Whether one appreciates the depiction of the character of Medea in Médée is a matter of taste. La Forqueray is one of Duphly's nicest pieces, a tribute to his colleague, whether the elder or the younger.
If you are interested in French harpsichord music you should consider this disc. The reason for this is not the repertoire: it is unlikely that there is any piece here you haven't already heard. The main reason is the harpsichord, a splendid original instrument of 1769 by Pascal Taskin. It is part of the Raymond Russell Collection housed by the University of Edinburgh in St Cecilia's Hall. It has a very beautiful sound, not as aggressive as some French harpsichords. This could also be due to the miking which is not too direct. John Kitchen is a sensitive performer, and although I find him sometimes a little too restrained, I have greatly enjoyed this disc.
Johan van Veen
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Ordre No. 6 in B flat [22:08]
Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745) (attr)
La Du Breüil [4:10]
La Leclair [3:03]
La Léon [5:09]
La Boisson [4:23]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
La Triomphante [1:33]
Les Sauvages [1:55]
Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789)
La Forqueray [5:51]