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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
La superbe [7:50]
Concert instrumental sur le titre d’Apothéose, composé à la mémoire immortelle de l´incomparable Monsieur de Lulli (1725) [27:53]
Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (1724) [12:03]
La Sultane [9:02]
Gli Incogniti/Amandine Beyer (violin)
rec. 2014, Théâtre des Quatre Saisons, Gradignan, France.
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from eClassical.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902193 [57:16]

In early eighteenth-century France, the apothéose was a musical tribute, often featuring a mythological programme as with the two works here. Related to the generally shorter tombeau, the best known of this type of work is not from this period, but from three centuries later: Maurice Ravel’s tribute to Couperin.

The specific reasons for the composition of the two Apothéoses is not known. They are obviously homages to the most important composers of the late seventeenth century, but each was long dead, more than thirty years in the case of Lully. Couperin was a passionate believer in a merger of the French and Italian sonata styles, and it is suggested that these grand works were a way of “publicising” that idea. Indeed, in the Lully work, the programme depicts Lully ascending to Parnassus (Heaven) where he meets Corelli, and is persuaded by Apollo to join forces, leading to an air where the two composers, represented by the two violins, “accompany” one another. The two works are skilful portrayals of the styles of the composers, without being pastiche.

In some ways, I enjoyed the short sonatas that started and ended the recording more than the main works, especially La Sultane, itself possibly a tombeau. I suspect this is because there is a melody role for the viola da gamba, meaning that there is greater contrast and richness than the other works where only the violin has the melody.

This was my first encounter with Gli Incogniti and Amandine Beyer, a French Baroque ensemble with serious historically informed practice credentials. They have received glowing reviews here for their recordings of Corelli, Vivaldi and Matteis on Zig Zag Territoires; this is their first release on Harmonia Mundi. Brian Wilson briefly mentioned it on its release in a Download News, and given the universal praise enjoyed by the group, I thought I should have a listen and provide a fuller review.

They have a quite distinctive sound, particularly director Amandine Beyer’s violin, which is quite high and at times strident, and I’m afraid that I found it a little tiring on first listen. I presume it is a consequence of the pitch they tune at, and let me make it clear that I’m not for a moment questioning intonation, which is rock-solid. It is simply the consequence of their interpretation of HIP, and a few more listens allowed my ear to adapt. The togetherness of the group and the joie de vivre of the performances is really splendid.

The most obvious alternative to this recording is that of London Baroque on BIS (CD1275 – review), which only differs in couplings by swapping La superbe for another Couperin sonata, La Steinerque. London Baroque has made a series of recordings for BIS of trio sonata from various countries, which have been well received here. The most relevant here is that of eighteenth-century France (BISCD1855 - review). The reviewer’s comment regarding needing less caution in the faster movements is instructive. I’ve found in my listening to London Baroque, both in the trio sonata series and the Apothéoses disc, is that they always err on the slow side. The sound they make is gorgeous – much easier on the ear than Gli Incogniti – but the lack of variation in the tempos does become a little tedious. The other drawback as far as I’m concerned with London Baroque’s Apothéoses recording is the inclusion, at the start of each movement, of the title, spoken in French. The BIS booklet doesn’t explain why this should be – presumably it was part of the original manuscript, so that the listener would know what the music was portraying. In a live performance, I could see this working, but in a recording, it is simply irritating.

The booklet notes are less than useful. Perhaps it is partly a matter of translation, but the two articles, one of them by Amandine Beyer, tend to play up the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of the fanciful programmes, rather than discuss the musical aspects.

While it took me a while to come to terms with the sound of Gli Incogniti, I can see why their recordings have been so well received. I intend to seek out their Vivaldi and Corelli.

David Barker



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