The Year of Couperin is drawing to a close. What, you haven’t celebrated François Couperin’s 350th birthday yet? There’s still time, and I’ve even got a playlist of new recordings for your party.
Couperin was born in 1668 into a family of musicians as important in France as the Bachs were in Germany. Famed for his virtuosic organ and harpsichord playing, it surely surprised no one that he received prominent positions and commissions in French royal circles. But the most lasting contribution the monarchy made to Couperin’s career and the future of keyboard playing was a 20-year “royal privilege to publish.”
A big merci to Louis XIV for giving Couperin the chance to save for posterity his hundreds of works for harpsichord, organ, small ensemble, and voice. And Couperin’s textbook about how to play the harpsichord, focusing mainly on ornamentation, is a bible for early-music keyboard players.
So many new Couperin recordings and remasters came out in 2018 that I can only give a taste of the several genres Couperin wrote in. It makes sense to start with harpsichord music, which is the best represented in his published books and the most-often played these days. Les Muses Naissantes (Ricercar) is a recording by harpsichordist Brice Sailly and colleagues. Sailly plays a few of Couperin’s solo ordres, which were basically suites of dance-inspired movements similar to those Bach wrote for various instruments.
When you listen to Couperin’s harpsichord music, some good points of merit to focus on are clarity of ornamentation and an organic sense of phrasing. In other words, while the music should be delicately ornate, it should also breathe. It’s easy for a harpsichordist obsessed with getting in all those darn notes to end up with a heavy or robotic sound. Not so Sailly. Here is his masterful, understated rendition of the 20th Ordre:
Les Muses Naissantes also includes some ensemble works by Couperin played by the 7-person La chambre claire. Soprano Emmanuelle De Negri’s voice has a captivating lilt in this secular song with instrumental accompaniment, which would probably have been used to entertain people at court. Unfortunately, Couperin did not write many such songs, or at least few still exist.
For another approach to Couperin’s keyboard music, try the almost frantically virtuosic playing of Bertrand Cuiller on his new release (which promises to be a series), François Couperin L'Alchimiste: Un petit théâtre du monde - Complete Works for Keyboard, Vol. 1.
Because this recording is on Harmonia Mundi, only a teaser is available on YouTube, but it’s enough to give a sense of Cuiller’s startling and ferocious playing.
You can hear the entire album on Spotify:
The record’s title, The Alchemist: A little theater of the world, refers to the descriptive names that the composer often gave the individual movements of his ordres and the sense it gives us of how colorful life was around courtiers. For example, there’s the second movement of the 11th Ordre, which the composer titled “Sparkling, or Lady Bontems.” Cuiller is a technical wonder. It might be tempting to discount his playing as nothing but powerful flying fingers, but remember that Couperin himself was prized for his virtuosity. I bet King Louis would have loved this performance.
By no means is Cuiller’s playing all flash; he can strike a meditative mood when needed, for example in the Allemande first movement (nicknamed “L’exquise” – The Exquisite Woman – but for whom? Ooh la la!) of the 27th Ordre. Yet it doesn’t have quite the organic breathing motion of Sailly’s touch.
These days, historically informed performance (known as “HIP” in the business) is considered the standard for approaching this repertoire. It’s surprising, then, when you hear new recordings that don’t take authenticity into account. I wanted to acknowledge one from a few years ago, newly available on YouTube, by Iddo Bar-Shaï. He plays Couperin on a modern grand piano and with a late nineteenth-century sensibility, especially in terms of rhythm.
The album is called François Couperin - Les Ombres Errantes / Pièces pour Clavecin, and it’s on the Mirare label. I find the interpretation very tender and warm, but I have to constantly stop myself from judging it by the tenets of early-music practice.
One Couperin fan who was fully committed to the composer’s special year is Christophe Rousset, harpsichordist and leader of the ensemble Les Talens Lyrique. Throughout 2018 they have been performing 350th birthday concerts all over Europe, and they also released a new recording on Aparté of the 1726 set of ensemble works called Les Nations. This often-played collection includes four paired sonatas and suites: La française, L'espagnole, L'impériale, and La piémontaise. So, it’s not exactly about four nations, and all four sound more Italian than anything.
Rousset’s 10-member band plays with earnestness and energy (sometimes a bit too much of both). It’s fun to hear the blending of their Baroque bowed strings, plucked strings, flutes, and reeds – quite a different sound from the modern versions of these instruments. Here’s a live excerpt from L’espagnole.
And you can hear the whole album on Spotify:
Speaking of Les Nations, I would be remiss not to mention an important remastered recording that came out during this birthday year. Longtime leader of the early-music movement, Jordi Savall (viola da gamba), along with other big names like Monica Huggett (violin) and Ton Koopman, recorded Les Nations in 1983, and the album has just been re-released on Alia Vox Heritage.
You won’t find better baroque playing than this. Here’s their exquisite rendition of the Sarabande from Couperin’s First Ordre. They play with such patience and thought, and the ornamentation is so perfectly coordinated among the instruments, it’s like a single being is making multi-timbred music.
And just to prove again that older can be better, here’s a quick look at the impressive François Couperin Edition, a 16-CD set of remastered recordings on Erato/Warner Classics. Among the artists included are harpsichordist Laurence Boulay (whose Couperin has never before been on CD), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, John Eliot Gardiner, and one of the most important conductors of Baroque vocal music, William Christie. Here is Christie’s group, Les Arts Florissants, featuring sopranos Patricia Petibon and Sophie Daneman performing a genre not often associated with Couperin – a sacred motet:
Monsieur Couperin, you were a man of many talents. Bon anniversaire!