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Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661)
Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript
Suite in D minor [21:50]
Allemande Grave in F [3:12]
Chaconne in F [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 [12:21]
Pavane in F sharp minor [7:56]
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, Wales
HYPERION CDA68224 [79:11]

To start at the end of this captivating disc; an eight minute Pavane written in F sharp minor – a key which according to Adrian Powney in his illuminating note is unprecedented in seventeenth century French keyboard literature – demonstrates the influence of the great lutenists upon the great keyboard composers of that place and age. The repertoire for this strummed instrument often involved this key, known as the ‘ton de la chèvre’ (the key of the goat) and this Pavane epitomises the experimental spirit that informs much of Louis Couperin’s music. Using a modern Yamaha (incorporating two contrasting actions), Pavel Kolesnikov has ultimately succeeded in shedding new light upon this extraordinary composer’s art and will hopefully facilitate a broader appreciation of this ancient music’s expressive potential.

One of the earliest and most abiding influences on this member of the Couperin clan was the renowned lutenist Charles Fleury, also known as Blancrocher. The Tombeau (lament) for this individual recorded here is stately, grave and incontrovertibly affecting. In it Couperin pictorially alludes to the staircase accident which resulted in his old friend’s demise. The notes hang in the air and afford deep reflection. Encountered on this modern instrument, it is scarcely believable that this music is four centuries old, so cleanly recorded and freshly reimagined is it here.

This is Pavel Kolesnikov’s third disc for Hyperion. He clearly has his labelmate Marc-Andre Hamelin’s magpie approach to choosing repertoire. Tchaikovsky’s Seasons were followed by a disc of selected Chopin Mazurkas; both of these yielded fresh secrets with each hearing and revealed a pianist with an individual but never showy approach – a serious and thoughtful artist apparently solely preoccupied with projecting the merits of the music he’s playing. I have absolutely no reason to question his judgement here– this Couperin disc is revelatory and I have had little inclination to play anything else over the past week.

The title Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript refers to the source of Louis Couperin’s 122 extant pieces for harpsichord. Seemingly very little music for the instrument was published at all prior to 1690 and this huge collection also includes works by contemporaries such as Chambonnières and Froberger. The compiler left absolutely no information about how the individual pieces should be sequenced. Consequently the three suites presented here consist of movements connected by their common keys and selected by Kolesnikov himself. He has ordered them according to the pattern encountered in similar works of the period; typically an unmeasured Prelude (in the D minor and A major suites here) followed by pairs of slow dances (Allemande and Courante) and pairs of quicker ones (Sarabande and Gigue). The effect of hearing this music on a modern piano perhaps enables the expressive intentions of a 17th century composer materialise more transparently to sympathetic 21st century ears. Richard Egarr, who has recorded Louis Couperin’s complete harpsichord output (for Harmonia Mundi – review) regards him as the greatest of all composers for the instrument. Having read some reviews of this disc already it is clear that not everybody has been convinced by Kolesnikov’s use of a modern piano, but in my view this music deserves far more than academic respect, it demands to be heard; to my ears this pianist’s insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure is handsomely rewarded here, and provides an abundance of delight and surprise for the sympathetic listener.
The Prelude that opens the D minor suite seems suspended in air as well as time. The absence of bar-lines gives the music a truly improvisatory, modern feel – Kolesnikov clothes these notes with a mysterious, yet oddly cool aura. His playing exudes sensitivity and restraint. The following Allemande and Courante display real elegance and a winning grace. The enigmatic and wistful Sarabande epitomises his superb pianism; the next movements, a Gavotte and Canaries (kind of rapid gigue-like dances) provide eloquent contrast and demonstrate the range of this extraordinary composer. The rarified delivery of the austere Chaconne with which the suite concludes satisfies on every level. Kolesnikov’s readings are constantly probing and for me at least consistently rewarding. Above all they are profoundly musical. The recording is exemplary.

All the Suites included here consist of pieces that are similarly varied and inspired. That they cohere as satisfyingly as they do completely justify Kolesnikov’s choices. They are separated from one another by slower, mostly Chaconne-like pieces (including Le Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher referred to earlier in the review) which each distil the expressive essence of this composer. I listened to the disc straight through in one sitting. I didn’t wait to do so again

What I have found most compelling about this issue is the modernity and strangeness of some of this music. This could actually be an ECM disc – it occupies that kind of sonic/aesthetic terrain. I was much better equipped to appreciate Louis Couperin’s spirit of experimentation and innovation on revisiting Egarr’s wonderful discs after playing this Kolesnikov disc. Some of the unmeasured Preludes, for example, suddenly seem almost Cagean, while the dissonances that abound in all of these pieces glitter like diamantine shards (to adapt Stravinsky’s famous words) abstracted from Schoenberg or Webern. In my view Kolesnikov has made a real case for this repertoire to be both heard and freshly appreciated on a modern piano. In interviews surrounding the release of this disc he acknowledged the risks involved in what was still only his third studio recording, but such enterprise should surely be applauded. It is interesting that Angela Hewitt recorded three discs for Hyperion of music by Louis’ (more universally revered) nephew Francois Couperin on modern piano, and enchanting as those discs are, it is the music of his uncle which I have here found more emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating. One wonders where Kolesnikov’s intuition will take him next. This is another Hyperion winner.

Richard Hanlon



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