Pieces for Harpsichord in G and B flat
Christophe Rousset Harpsichord
2 CDs Full Price
Dynasties in music are not uncommon but the Couperin family was perhaps France’s most firmly rooted. Unlike the Bachs, though, they did not spread out across the country but cemented themselves in position at one Parisian church for a century and three-quarters; St. Gervais, on the right bank of the Seine, close to the Hotel de la Ville and the river itself.
Louis was given the organist’s job there in 1656 and it stayed in the family until the church was briefly turned into a Temple of Reason after the revolution. Armand-Louis might be said to have been lucky to just miss that event by five months – if it can be said to be lucky to die after being kicked by a horse. Still, as a musician of the Royal Chapel at Versailles as well as a church organist in the heart of the Marais, he would probably have been pretty quickly in the revolutionary firing line.
These pieces were written in happier times; published in 1751 when Armand-Louis was 24 but 18 years after the death of his father’s famous cousin, Francois: enough of a gap for the works to show clearly the influence of a different generation, in Armand-Louis’s case Rameau. The 22 pieces in the collection are varied, substantial and tuneful – and must have done nothing to hurt his chances with Elisabeth-Antoinette Blanchet, virtuoso harpsichordist and daughter of the most famous Parisian maker of the instrument, Francois-Etienne Blanchet. They married a few months later.
The B flat pieces which make up the second CD are the more immediately striking of the set. There is proper fanfare in L’Enjouée and Les Tendres Sentimens live up to their lyrical name. Tracks 10 – 13 comprise Couperin’s portraits of four nations: Italy, England, Germany and France. His Italians are dramatic and flamboyant but rather more formal than might expect. The English relax into humming a jolly tune, a great contrast to the ferocious and rhythmically definite Germans. His own people are depicted greeting each other effusively with much flourishing of hats.
Christophe Rousset seems to like a meaty sound these days, so A-L Couperin’s mid eighteenth century works, on the cusp between baroque and classicism, suit his playing well. There’s a muscularity to the music and Rousset’s reading that is an antidote to the more effete manners of the Louis XIV period. The strings are plucked with a satisfying crunch: more bite, less tinkle (now if that sentence doesn’t get me into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, what will?). Nonetheless, for those who find harpsichord music of that era tiring to listen to, this set goes a long way towards dispelling the feeling. He emphasises the bass registers, giving the more decorative elements of the writing a firm harmonic foundation and showing how the harpsichord could rival the organ and the emerging fortepiano in its expressive range. Oddly, the qualities that recommend Rousset as a player are strongly related to those that I find less sympathetic as an emsemble director, when I feel he overloads the bass parts of the continuo. None of that matters here, though. These are compelling performances by a distinguished harpsichordist at his mature best.