In contrast with Richard Egarr's survey of the complete Pièces de Clavecin (Harmonia Mundi HMU907511.14), this offering from Aparté by Baroque keyboard specialist Christophe Rousset presents a selection of about three dozen movements from six Suites by Louis Couperin (c.1626-1661), the eldest of the Couperin family and uncle to François, on two CDs.
As is to be expected with Rousset, it's a stylish, pointed, highly communicative – yet emotionally rich and deep – recital. The instrument is by Louis Denis from 1658, restored by Reinhard Von Nagel between 2004 and 2005. One of the oldest surviving French harpsichords, its sound is rounded, mellow, gentle almost. Yet never at any time does it lack the "push" and penetration firmly to seat us quietly in a small, intimate and justly expectant room in the Paris of the mid seventeenth century marveling at the invention, sophistication and beauty of Couperin's dextrous melodic and harmonic creativity.
Specifically, the listener is struck by the confidence (listen to the unabashed rallentando at the end of the Sarabande of the Suite in C Major [CD.1 tr.18], for instance) with which Couperin makes the conventions of the dance movements his own. We are consequently struck by the confidence of Rousset in conveying those qualities to us. And we are nicely aware of the variety which almost inevitably follows from that creativity. Rousset is completely at one with this intention and execution of Couperin. He embraces each nuance of tempo, texture and phrasing (be the latter ever so subtle) and yet infuses life and energy into all Couperin's intended cadences and even silences.
This delicate and sensitive respect for Couperin's score must come, in the first place, from the player's great precision in observing and appreciating the idiom of these crystalline pieces. But to achieve playing of such persuasion requires more: in this case with Rousset, it seems to be an obvious love of the many moods and atmospheres of the music… regret, gentility, softness, understatement (the second movement of the C minor Suite [CD.2 tr.2] is entitled Allemande la précieuse, for example), and barely disguised hurry (as in the very next movement of the same suite, the Courante [CD.2 tr.2]); but a hurry that's wholly appropriate and in keeping with the feel of the music. It's music with a direction. Rousset's approach contrasts with that of Egarr in the former's slightly greater emphasis on the sound of Couperin's suites. Egarr on their "build". But neither is a superior approach. Neither would be possible without a deep understanding of the other.
At the same time, each sentiment is tempered with a poise and elegance that add immeasurably to our engagement with the music. For Rousset's playing communicates to us what Couperin actually intended us to hear; rather than merely invoking a "humor" or topos (the delayed trill, the arpeggiated thrill, the shrill leap) and letting our experience do the work. One net effect of this is great freshness. At times it's as though we're hearing not only this music itself, but even early Baroque French solo harpsichord music, for the first time.
When you remember that Couperin's scoring was "unmeasured" (conveying far fewer indications of note value than later music usually does) Rousset has a huge task to interpret tempi, phrasing and expression. That he does so with such grace and so successfully – yet evidently faithfully to what Couperin wanted – is a great achievement. Rousset's playing has flow, currency, style and precision. But it's also extremely conducive to our responding to the inner spirit that Couperin possessed. Further, Couperin (who died too young, at 35) was remembered immediately after his death chiefly as a harmonist. Rousset is just as successful here, in offering the harmonies and resulting delights of Couperin's inventions.
It was normal in Couperin's time for performers also to make selections from the complete œvre. So, although not so complete as the set by Eggar, the CDs' producers argue that it was wise to follow such a selective practice here. This thus avoids, as they suggest, "… three Courantes in succession or a Chaconne and a Passacaille following each other in the same key…". Acknowledging implicitly such a span of the composer's gifts, Rousset nevertheless deprives us of one last wish: that he had lived longer. His collection here is still highly satisfying.
The acoustic is close, yet does not lack just the right amount of resonance. The booklet and notes that come with the two CDs are informative. If you want a top flight recital of many of Louis Couperin's beautiful, soulful keyboard works played to perfection by an expert, this set can be very warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.