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French Harpsichord Music
rec. 2005-15
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95250 [29 CDs]

The problem with any compilation like this when drawn from a company’s back catalogue is that there are bound to be composers who get missed out. Whilst there are serious omissions from this set, it is thankfully wide-ranging enough to form a good collection of this fascinating and extremely varied repertoire.

The first three discs contain the complete Pièces de Clavecin of Jean-Henri D’Anglebert. Whilst little is known of his early life, the fact that he composed a Tombeau de M. de Chambonnières has led scholars to believe that he was at some time the student of the older man. His first published collection of music not only contains his own music but also pieces by Chambonnières as well as Louis Couperin who can also be seen to have had an influence on his musical development. He became the organist at the church of St. Honoré in Paris in 1659 and two years later was appointed harpsichordist to Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, the younger brother of Louis XIV.

This recording is, I believe, only the second complete set of his harpsichord pieces after Christophe Rousset’s ground-breaking set for Decca (458 588-2). The suites are full of ingenuity and show a development of the French harpsichord style from that of his teacher, with the suites not only containing the usual dance movements, but also paraphrases of well known theatrical pieces of the day. Francesco Cera’s performance is strong and makes an ideal starting point. On reflection Rousset offers the more characterful reading and also benefits from the better instrument.

Whilst the name Jacques Champion de Chambonnières is not new to me, many of the pieces contained within the eight short suites presented here were. As harpsichordist, organist and dancer in the court of Louis XIV, he was regarded as one of the greatest musicians in Europe, and the finest exponent of the early French harpsichord school. This reputation eventually fell foul of the restrictions placed upon the publication of music in France imposed by Lully and he died in poverty. The suites contain the usual dance movements, and you can hear how he influenced the music of D’Anglebert.

Franz Silvestri plays the music well but suffers slightly from an over-bright recording. I am not sure if he has been recorded too closely or the pitch is slightly off, however, the tone of the instrument did not impair my enjoyment of this music that much.

Not a lot is known about Gaspard Le Roux. Indeed it could be said that he burst onto the scene with the publication of his collection of suites for one and two harpsichords in 1705. This was about two years before his death. The suites contain the first examples in the French harpsichord school of pieces “with non-specific fanciful titles, a practice derived from the lute tradition”. They are regarded as one of the pinnacles of French music composed between D’Anglebert and François Couperin.

Here the music is played by Pieter-Jan Belder, the star of this box set and Siebe Henstra. Their playing is excellent and is far more enjoyable than that of Naoko Akutagawa and Glen Wilson for Naxos (8.557884), as is the sound of their instruments.

Both Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and Louis Marchand are known for other things. They composed relatively little harpsichord music. Whilst Clérambault is chiefly known these days for his wonderful cantatas, Marchand is remembered in anecdotes. Whilst he was regarded as the greatest organist of his day, when Rameau moved to Paris he went to live next to the Cordeliers’ monastery to be within hearing distance of Marchand, he was forever upsetting the authorities. After he was separated from his wife she petitioned the court for a share of his money. The story runs that he stopped playing the organ half way through a mass attended by the King stating that ‘if she got half the money, she could play half the mass.’ This led to his being banished from France and it was while he was on his travels that probably the most celebrated event of his life occurred. It was arranged that during his time in Dresden there would be a "play off" between himself and J.S. Bach. However, on the eve of the competition, Marchand is said to have skipped town.

The music contained on this disc is not the most inspired in this box set, but it is not helped by Yago Mahúgo’s reading. This sounds at times a bit uninspired; it is as if he just going through the motions. I have an old Solstice CD performed by Huguette Grémy-Chauliac (FYCD 055). She makes a lot more of this music.

The heart of this set is the eleven discs devoted to the 4 Livres de Pièces de Clavecin: Ordres 1-24 of François Couperin. I am happy to say that they get a good performance. For many people the four Livres represents the golden age of the French school. The sheer variety of the dances and descriptive pieces making the collection stand out from anything that had gone before. I have a friend who has a set of the first Livre and who has said that that is enough to get the feeling for the music. He can’t be more wrong, the four Livres are all different in their own way and all need to be experienced. Yes eleven and a half hours of a single composer's harpsichord music might sound a lot — and I suggest you don’t listened to it in one sitting — but there is a lot here to enthral.

Michael Borgstede’s reading is very good. It may not be as inspired as Christophe Rousset’s long deleted Harmonia Mundi set (HMX 2901442.52), which also offers a disc of the works for two harpsichords with William Christie as well as excellent notation. However, whilst you wait for a non-extortionately priced secondhand set to appear this is more than just a good substitute. Borgstede in the pieces for two harpsichords that appear in the Livre employs on occasion the alternative instrumentation. Thus, rather than just the original concept we get pieces performed using harpsichord and violin or viola da gamba. This makes a nice and interesting change.

The Forquerays were a musical family of some repute. Not only was Antoine a player of the viola da gamba in the royal court, but when his son Jean-Baptiste performed before Louis XIV at the age of ten the King was so impressed with the young boy’s talent that he paid for his future musical training. Then in 1689, after he had finished his training he made him Musicien ordinaire de La chambre du Roy, a position he would retain until his death. There was also a younger brother, Michel (1681-1751) but little is known about him other than that he was also a gamba player and composer. Although chiefly regarded as a composer of music for the viola da gamba, his music is regarded as the most distinctive of his near contemporaries, Marais, François Couperin, Rameau and Duphly. He was able to bring this originality to his compositions for the harpsichord.

I find that Michael Borgstede’s reading of this music, although very good, is a little less inspired than that of his Couperin recordings. It is however certainly the equal of my other recording, that by Luc Beauséjour for Naxos (8.553407, 8.553717). It makes a fine addition to my collection.

The three discs open with a spirited account of the Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts by the group Musica Amphion. This has Rémy Baudet on baroque violin, Rainer Zipperling on viola da gamba, and Pieter-Jan Belder on harpsichord. Their playing is well measured and amongst the best performances of this work that I know. Sadly however the solo harpsichord pieces have been omitted from this set.

Of all the French harpsichord school, I find the music of Rameau the most satisfying and in many ways the most imaginative. This is perhaps why I now have five versions of this remarkable music. The dance movements have a real life to them whilst the character pieces are full of colour and adventure. I am only sorry that Rameau didn’t compose more than he did. The playing of Pieter-Jan Belder gives a thoughtful and exciting performance which is up there with the best. He really brings this music to life.

Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer was born in Turin where his father was on secondment from the Palace of Versailles to oversee the gardens of the Court of Savoy. It was not until he was twenty that he went to France. Here he soon became involved in the music of the royal court, becoming the music teacher to the children of Louis XV in the 1730s. During this period he also became involved in the Paris Opéra, for which he composed six operas, the most important and famous being Zaïde, reine de Grenade of 1739. He, along with Mondonville, became director of the Concert Spirituel in 1748 and finally became a French citizen in 1751. In 1753 he was awarded the most prestigious position of all, that of music director of the Chambre du Roi, or the king's chamber.

Despite the title Premier Livre de pièces de Clavecin this set seems to be Royer’s only composition for the instrument. The pieces are different in character, with some deploying the lute feature of the instrument and are quite reflective. Others are quite flamboyant in nature, especially the La Marche des Scythes which has become something of a showpiece. I am glad to say that Yago Mahúgo seems to be more involved with this music than he is with the Marchand and Clérambault. He gives here a really good performance, which while not as incisive as Christophe Rousset’s second recording of the music (Ambroisie AM 151), it is certainly a good way to get to know this music.

It is only in the last year or so that I have come to know the harpsichord music of Jacques Duphly through Brilliant's original release of this set (94999). Although his early life was spent playing the organ at the cathedrals of Évreux and St. Eloi, when his father died in 1742 he decided to give up the organ, moved to Paris and devoted his time to the harpsichord. He soon gained a reputation as one of the finest performers and teachers of his day, with the harpsichord manufacturer Pascal Taskin regarding him as the finest in Paris. He composed four Livres of harpsichord pieces between 1744 and 1768. These show an indebtedness to the tradition of Chambonnières, but also clearly demonstrate just how far harpsichord music in France had progressed in the intervening years.

Pieter-Jan Belder is once again on fine form, as is Rie Kimura who plays violin on five pieces in the Troisième Livre de pièces de Clavecin. Their performance is strong with Belder bringing out the divergent character and colour of this music.

This is, apart from one disc, an excellent and well conceived set. It could easily form the basis of a thorough introduction to French harpsichord music, or can serve as a backup to an existing collection. Its performers are, on the whole, in fine form with Belder being the stand-out exponent of this repertoire. All the harpsichords employed here are modern copies so there is no going out of tune. While a couple of the recordings are a little bright this is not enough to affect the listener’s enjoyment. The notes by David Moncur, whilst short, are informative and make a good starting point for this wonderful music. You can fill in the blanks with a little judicious searching of the internet.

Stuart Sillitoe

Contents
Jean-Henri D’ANGLEBERT (1635-1691
CDs 1-3 Pièces de Clavecin [55:52 + 59:23 + 58:29]
Francesco Cera (harpsichord)
rec. Palazzo Cagnano, Laurena Cilento, Italy, 29-31 May 2013
Jacques Champion de CHAMBONNIÈRES (c.1601-1672)
CDs 4-5 Suites de Clavecin [43:42 + 44:50]
Franz Silvestri (harpsichord)
rec. Auditorium Giani Casa d’Organi, Corte de’ Frati, Cremona, Italy, 17-18 October 2015.
Gaspard LE ROUX (c.1660-c.1707)
CDs 6-7 Pièces de Clavecin [50:08 + 54:37]
Pieter-Jan Belder (harpsichord I), Siebe Henstra (harpsichord II)
rec. Chapel of the Capuchin Monastry, Velp, The Netherlands, February 2015
CD 8 Louis-Nicolas CLERAMBAULT (1676-1749) [77:20]
Pièces de Clavecin
Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732)
Pièces de Clavecin
Yago Mahúgo (harpsichord)
rec. OnClassical Studio, Bassano del Grappa, Italy, 25-27 October 2014
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
CDs 9-19 4 Livres de Pièces de Clavecin: Ordres 1-24
[71:32 + 51:56 + 57:16 + 55:48 + 66:30 + 76:32 + 72:43 + 67:42 + 58:26 + 65:56 + 57:59]
Michael Borgstede (harpsichord)
rec. The Netherlands, 2005
Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745)
Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY (1699-1782)
CDs 20-21 Pièces de Clavecin [72:47 + 78:02]
Michael Borgstede (harpsichord)
rec. Remonstrantse Doopsgezinde Church, The Netherlands, December 2008
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
CD 22 Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts [60:00]
Musica Amphion
CDs 23-24 Pièces de Clavecin, Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin [75:53 + 55:57]
Pieter-Jan Belder (harpsichord)
rec. Remonstrantse Doopsgezinde Church, The Netherlands, November 2008
Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace ROYER (c.1705-1755)
CD 25 Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin [61:57]
Yago Mahúgo (harpsichord)
rec. OnClassical Studio, Bassano del Grappa, Italy, 14-18 October 2011
Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789)
CDs 26-29 4 Livres de Pièces de Clavecin [no details supplied]
Pieter-Jan Belder (harpsichord)
rec. Chapel of the Capuchin Monastry, Velp, The Netherlands, October 2013 and February 2014

 

 




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