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CD Review

François Couperin

Complete Harpsichord Music

  • Pièces de clavecin, Book 1 (1713)
  • Pièces de clavecin, Book 2 (1717)
  • Pièces de clavecin, Book 3 (1722)
  • Pièces de clavecin, Book 4 (1730)
Michael Borgstede, Harpsichord
Brilliant Classics BRL-CD-93082 11CDs
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Complete sets of almost anything can be a bit of a gamble. Particularly when there are creditable alternatives. In this case one thinks immediately of Angela Hewitt's Pièces de clavecin issues on Hyperion. Now from Brilliant, who specialize in bargain-priced boxed sets, come eleven CDs for under $43 (£22). Low-priced this one may be – and from a performer with few other, and no solo, recordings currently in the catalog – but they are exemplary in every way and should be snapped up immediately. The set has been conceived carefully and intelligently, is expertly executed, the engineering is of consistently high quality and the playing convincing in every way.

Couperin composed four books of harpsichord music, which were published between 1713 and 1730. Each book, each collection, is divided into Suites; Couperin called these Ordres. There are 27 Ordres in all. Couperin specialists assert that there is, should be, continuity within and across the four books: the numbering runs continuously throughout all four. Indeed, to listen to these eleven discs is to feel a progression, a focussing of ideas, structure and purpose.

The first book (1713) [CDs 1 – 3] cannot have much claim to order, though; it appears to be little more than a collection of previously-published pieces for the instrument, Couperin having not long been appointed court organist to Louis XIV and having divided his time for those ten years up to its publication between performing duties, composing and teaching. It nevertheless makes every sense to listen to each Ordre complete for this is almost certainly what Couperin intended. And as the series progresses, the music increases in cohesion. This is not to say that the later work is 'better' than the earlier; but it does repay more repetition and is likely to be more fulfilling. Listen to 'Les Idée Heureuses', for example, to hear the power of Couperin's descriptive, figurative writing. As he grew, Couperin inevitably matured, and this is evident as you move on from the earlier Ordres, almost as though the composer had hit upon an idea at random (titled sets of Suites), firmed up his ideas on it and built it into something very special to him out of which personal attachment grew an evident internal and organic logic. The titles, by the way, remain enigmatic. Some are explained in the CDs' notes. But no more fully than elsewhere. And read carefully: there are shocks.

Already by 1716, when the second 'Livre' [CDs 4 – 6] appeared, Couperin's arrangement was more organized and a set of purposes (not least to aid his own teaching) had become plainer. Each Ordre is more clearly centered on a particular theme. Ordre 10, for example, starts a battle sequence with the magnificent 'La Triomphante', at over 9½ minutes it's almost the longest single piece of all; the 6iême Ordre's remarkable 'Les Petits Ages' is 30 seconds longer still. Both receive suitably vigorous but not showy virtuosic performances from Borgstede. Typically brilliant and persuasive playing by Borgstede is also to be heard in the 11iême Ordre – particularly 'Les Fastes de à la grande et ancienne menest' (or 'Mxnxstrxndsxs' [sic] as printed here). His mixture of control and excitement, insistence on the melody and the rhythm with determined elegance are little short of breathtaking.

The third 'Livre' (1722) [CDs 7 – 9] is strangely playful, although only the 17ième Ordre contains a dance. In exploring particularly the harpsichord's upper registers, Couperin must be considered at the height of his powers here. It is only perhaps in this third 'Livre' that Hewitt's recording (Hyperion CDA67520) presents strong competition to Borgstede's. Listen in particular to his reflective and steady 14iéme Ordre – beginning with 'Le Rossignol – en – amour' for splendid nature portraits, almost romantic in their pace and languor and wry realism.

The fourth 'Livre' [CDs 10 and 11] continues in the same vein until the 25ième Ordre, when everything suddenly and unrecoverably grows dark. This, with its 'La Visionaire' and 'La Misterieuse', sets a somber trend. It's Couperin's old age and, perhaps, his sense of impending death that seem to be pushing their way into our awareness above the refinement. Here is some of Borgstede's best playing. He neither overdoes nor overlooks the depth of what Couperin was conveying. You'll return to these two CDs time and again.

Writing in the preface to the fourth of these books of harpsichord pieces in 1730, three years before his death, Couperin says: "I am grateful to the public for the applause so kindly given thus far to my works, and I believe that I deserve some part of it for the efforts I have made to please them. As scarcely anyone has composed more than I have, in various genres, I hope that my family will discover in my portfolios something which may cause me to be remembered with fondness, if indeed memories are of any use to us after life. One must, however, hold to such an idea, if one is to endeavor to merit that chimerical immortality to which nearly all aspire." Alas his family disregarded his wishes and there is every chance that some of his music was lost. The composer is even now considered something of a 'niche' enthusiasm. This is surely due to the prejudice, or at least the bias, against Couperin's music because of its (idiosyncratic or excessive) ornamentation, as expressed even by Burney… "so crowded and deformed by beats, trills and shakes that no plain note was left". And that despite such champions as Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Bartók, Ravel, Strauss and Milhaud, to name but the most obvious ones. It's true that by and large Couperin's keyboard works lack evident, long unbroken lines of melody. It's also true, though, that the best of all Couperin is to be found in his keyboard compositions; and that those are fused with the harpsichord, an instrument (think of Beecham's jibe) which not everyone loves. But make no mistake, this is outstanding, if at first perhaps relatively remote, repertoire and this set is an excellent advocate for it. By concentrating on the intricacies and projection of musical ideas and reveling in the professionalism of the playing, it won't be long before its depth and breadth sweep you along with it. Pick, say the 12iême Ordre, close your eyes and play it through. It truly is magical.

The instruments used are two – with French unequal temperament tunings – by Titus Crijnen (1998): after Ruckers (1638) for 'Livres' I to III; and after Hemsch (1754) for 'Livre' IV. It's also to be noted that Borgstede spaced out his five sets of sessions for Brilliant over almost a year and a quarter, just long enough to allow interpretative understanding to mellow but not for this consummate performer to tire or move on and risk making what could have resulted in multiple, or – worse – contradictory, visions. It must also be said loud and clear that Borgstede's familiarity with the Baroque French keyboard idiom is so sure and firm that, although these are very stylishly contemporary performances, his articulation is lucid and concise; it displays just the right amount of force without losing subtlety. In other words sensitive without sounding tentative.

The first worry one might have at the thought of almost twelve hours of apparently similarly-flavored music is lack of variety. Indeed, it would be an act of dedication to sit down in the morning and work one's way through all eleven CDs. But perhaps that would be a good way for the huge variety of Couperin's pieces to strike one. The test of the success of this Brilliant set is that as soon as one piece reaches its conclusion, one is excited – even after ten CDs – in equal measure to replay it, and to hear what's coming next. And varied they are – in length, style, color, tempo, palette, painting, technique, referenced subject matter (people – especially women, nature, dance (in almost all then current forms), emotions, the theatre, miniature 'tone poems' etc), mood (often sadness hidden by gentility), stature and so on. There are imitative pieces… of the French lutenists brisé style, of the world of burlesque and of battles, for example. Indeed Couperin himself writes, "I have always had a subject when composing these pieces; different occasions have provided it." But he then goes on to obscure such meanings, correspondences and origins and sources. The best place to look for a modern explanation is 'The Mirror of Human Life' (Clark and Connon, ISBN 1-871775-10-8), which assigns to Couperin more the persona of Hogarth than Johnson… La Bourbonnoise (1ére Ordre) alone makes that case!

One is most aware, perhaps, of these contrasts and of the richness of Couperin's invention – especially if we see him, as Clark and Connon do, as a wise observer of (the foibles of) those around him. Particularly by the very act of careful, studied attention which such a set as this affords: one knows that 'it's all here'. And the more familiar the music becomes, the greater the contrasts, such that each piece is – like a friend; but the temperaments of one's friends are all different. It is to Borgstede's great credit that he simply lets the music speak for itself and enables it to communicate, lead us, where it will. he never tries to force, over-interpret, over-titillate. Despite a slim booklet with the barest of details at just six pages of text, this is a well-presented and amazingly good value set of CDs. Borgstede's complete Couperin harpsichord works from Brilliant can be unreservedly recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey