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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Concerts Royaux (before 1722)
Concert No.1 in G [11:09]
Concert No.2 in D [13:17]
Concert No.3 in A [16:53]
Concert No.4 in e minor [14:23]
I Fiori Musicali
Released 2017
Reviewed from press access download.
URANIA LDV14031 [55:54]

Reviewing a recording of this music from Les Talens Lyriques, led by Christophe Rousset (Aparté AP196), I noted that there was no single way to perform these pieces, which were intended for court performance. Set down on two staves, they can be performed on the keyboard alone, or supplemented ‘si l’on veut’, and that’s how they are usually performed and recorded. Rousset chooses violin, flute, oboe and gamba; the Urania recording fields a slightly slimmer team of two kinds of flute, bassoon and gamba.

The use of the bassoon makes I Fiori Musicali sound slightly slower, les springy on their feet, than Les Talens Lyriques, but the actual times tend to show little difference, with the performances on Urania slightly faster in general: in the premier concert, for example, there’s just 25 seconds difference overall. With a few exceptions, such as the muzette in the third concert, which I shall come to shortly, the title concerts royaux reminds us that these are court dances: allemande, sarabande, gavotte, gigue and menuet in the first concert, so the slightly graver tone introduced by the bassoon – not here in its more buffoonish guise – may seem more suited to the music to some listeners. On the whole, however, it’s the lighter tone of Les Talens Lyriques on Aparté that has the greater appeal for me. Having reviewed them in positive terms, I’m not surprised to see that their recording was subsequently nominated for an ICMA award.

The two kinds of flute on Urania come into play in the third concert, in many ways the most attractive of the four. It’s not surprising that another recording which, like the Urania, we seem to have missed, from Arthur Haas (harpsichord), Bruce Haynes (oboe) and Susie Napper (gamba), an even slimmer team of performers, includes that work along with concerts No.7 and No.11 from Les goûts reunis and excerpts from the fifteenth ordre of Pièces de clavecin (ATMA ACD22168, recorded 1998). The chief raison d’être of that recording was to demonstrate the sound of Haynes’ two hautboys, one an original from Paris, c.1700, the other a modern copy. Originally released in 2000, the CD was reissued in 2011 as an appropriate tribute to Hayes after his death.

It’s in this third concert especially that the choice of different flutes on Urania, the treble recorder and the flute à voix, or voice flute, comes into play, emphasising the contrast between the rusticity of the muzette sixth movement and the following chaconne which closes the work. Certainly, the distinctive sound of these two instruments can be appreciated in that concert, but the sound on the Atma recording is even more distinctive – it’s either cleaner or thinner depending on your point of view. I Fiori Musicali take this movement faster than the other two, thereby losing some of the charm of its evocation of a pastoral landscape on a lazy summer’s day. On the other hand, the sheer beauty and accomplishment of the Atma team somewhat belies the marking naïve – the musette was a rural, bagpipe-like instrument, albeit somewhat gentrified which leaves Les Talens Lyriques my overall ‘building a library’ winners.

I said that the third concert was in many ways the favourite, but the fourth ends with a memorable forlane, marked gaiement, with a rocking rhythm, excellently captured by Les Talens Lyriques thereby leaving a very favourable impression of their recording. The slightly heavier sound of the Urania team is slightly less gai, but it still rounds off their performance stylishly. The concerts were not intended to be played in any special order, or even together, but both these recordings end in satisfaction.

My overall choice for these four concerts remains Les Talens Lyriques on Aparté, but I wouldn’t feel too aggrieved if someone swapped it out with the Urania for my Desert Island. Even with one or other of these, I should still wish also to have some examples of the later works from les goûts reunis, in which Couperin merits his title ‘le grand’ by unifying the warring French and Italian styles, specifically of Rameau and Lully. That’s where the Atma recording scores, but for the four concerts royaux alone Les Talens Lyriques retain the edge.

Brian Wilson

I Fiori Musicali:
Maria Giovanna Fiorentino (voice flute and soprano recorder)
Paolo Togno (bassoon)
Rosita Ippolito (viola da gamba)
Maria Luisa Baldassari (harpsichord)

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