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Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661)
Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript
Suite in D minor [21:50]
Allemande Grave in F major [3:12]
Chaconne in F major [3:34]
Chaconne ou Passacaille in G minor [4:49]
Suite in G minor [16:30]
Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher [8:48]
Suite in A major [12:21]
Pavane in F sharp minor [7:56]
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, Wales
HYPERION CDA68224 [79:11]

A couple of years ago I reviewed a disc on the Hyperion label of a selection of Chopin Mazurkas played by the Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. I not only awarded it a Recording of the Month, but it also made it to one of my six choices of the year. It was with eager anticipation that I awaited the pianist’s next venture and I'm pleased to say that it has finally arrived, keyboard music by the French Baroque composer Louis Couperin, whose life was sadly cut short at the age of only thirty-five. The pianist discovered the composer’s music whilst browsing repertoire and was struck by its unique and distinctive style and intoxicating harmonies. The Couperin dynasty were the most prolific family in French music during the 17th-18th centuries, and Louis was the uncle of the acclaimed François, otherwise known as François le Grand.

Approximately 200 of Louis Couperins works survive, the majority (around 122 pieces) are for harpsichord. They are preserved as copies in the Bauyn Manuscript alongside works by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667) and Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (c.1601/2– 1672). This assemblage took place about fifteen years after the composer’s death. The pieces are set out in a sequence of ascending tonality and grouped into suites in an order most probably determined by Froberger. Custom catered for taste when it came to choosing the movements for performance, and Kolesnikov took this into consideration when planning his programme: “I've chosen the order of pieces considering the dramatic structure and build-up of tension, as well as the colour shifts”.

A fascinating trailer accompanies the release and supplies some context. Kolesnikov advances some intelligent reasoning behind this project. The musical legacy of Louis Couperin yields many riches. The music is intense, subtle and emotional. Its influences are the lute, and orchestral and vocal music. In order to realize his vision and capture the many sides of this music, the pianist has taken great care to choose a sympathetic instrument. A Yamaha CFX concert grand fitted the bill just fine, with two different actions, one bright, the other mellow with depth, to accommodate the music’s wide range of expressive possibilities. I have to say that Couperin’s music works very well on the modern concert grand. This is bolstered by the congenial acoustic of the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, which confers warmth, agreeable resonance and a level of intimacy.

Three substantial Suites form the backbone of this recital, each imaginatively constructed by Kolesnikov. Individual pieces are interspersed between, which add an element of diversity. Two of the Suites, the D minor and A major, begin with ‘unmeasured’ Preludes. Here, the duration of the note is left to the performer, there are no bar lines or metre indications. The pianist compares this sort of writing to prose, as opposed to the more formally structured score which he refers to as poetry. He performs the Preludes with a wealth of imagination, freedom, flexibility and improvisatory skill; one has the feeling of music evolving on the wing.

The dance movements which form the bulk of the Suites are harmonically adventurous and stylish. The music exudes playfulness, nobility, occasionally mournfulness and surprise. I found much of it is quite introspective and soulful. A great deal of it presents the player with technical challenges. The D minor Suite ends with a Chaconne, the G minor with a Passacaille.

The Sarabande in D minor is reflective, whilst the G minor seems lost in its thoughts. Kolesnikov extemporises the elegantly subtle ornamentation with creative freedom. There are two Sarabandes in the A major Suite, and the second in A minor, imbued with superb dynamic control, emits a diaphanous aura. The underlying mien of the Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher is elegaic. Blancrocher was a celebrated lutenist who died in 1652 after falling down some stairs. Couperin’s tribute is suffused with doleful regret. I love the expressive freedom with which the pianist contours the Allemande Grave in F major. The Passacaille in G minor reveals Couperin at his greatest, with tension, dissonant suspensions and a falling bass generating a potent mix.

By contrast, Kolesnikov injects spice and rhythmic pulse into the Gavotte and Canaries of the Suite in D minor. Razor-sharp articulation and bracing vigour add allure to the Gigue in C minor from the G minor Suite, and the same goes for its counterpart in the Suite in A.

Adrian Powney’s scholarly annotations supply much welcome context and background. As for Kolesnikov’s playing, with musicianship at this level, the recording is a triumph.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Richard Hanlon (Recording of the Month)


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