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The other Couperin le Grand,
This review is from: Louis Couperin: Complete Keyboard Works (Audio CD)
This 4-disc set brings us the complete harpsichord music of Louis Couperin. It's an ambitious undertaking by Richard Egarr and Harmonia Mundi, some of which may well come as a revelation even to baroque fans already familiar with the music of the period. In his booklet notes Mr. Egarr makes bold claims for the quality of the music and for Louis Couperin's place in keyboard history - claims which, I suspect, you will readily swallow only if you've never heard of Byrd, Sweelinck, Cabezón, D'Anglebert, Handel or Louis' nephew François, let alone JSB. That is, until you've heard these discs - because, as very soon becomes evident, this is imaginative, original and deeply thoughtful music and, especially as performed here by Richard Egarr, a delight to both ear and spirit.
The 140 or so pieces left by Louis can be arranged into suites at the player's discretion and this is what Egarr has done, resulting here in around twenty suites - in the French style, obviously. Typically, each one opens with a free-ranging Prélude, followed by a number of dance movements such as allemande, courante and sarabande and often ending with a chaconne or passacaille. But make no mistake, in no way is this music routine, formulaic or predictable. A sampling of the very first suite on CD 1, in C major, will be enough to reveal the qualities of both Couperin's music and Egarr's performance - from the opening Prélude, played with insight, freedom and delicacy, and through the various dance movements, the music is touching, contemplative, imbued with deep inner thought and feeling. The suite ends with a Chaconne, one of many magnificent examples of the genre in this collection; Egarr's playing is quite captivating here - enhanced by the gentlest of hesitations and the subtlest of rubato, this is keyboard music and interpretation of the very highest quality.
Another suite well worth sampling would be that in F major at the beginning of the third CD. Here again, the Prélude takes many unexpected turns in the course of its sinuous progress, with Egarr's beautifully judged embellishments and gentle rubato in the dance movements constantly enhancing the sense of the unexpected. The soulful sequence of Sarabandes begins with a deceptively simple melody, and is followed by the short and cheerful uplift of the Gigue. Then comes a truly beautiful Chaconne - my favourite piece in this whole set in fact, if I had to choose one - its dark solemnity belying its major key, with Egarr's way of spreading out the chords impressing the music deep into the listener's consciousness. This wonderful piece in turn prepares the ground for the delicate sadness of the closing Tombeau de M. Blancrocher, written to mark the tragic death after a fall of the Parisian lutenist of that name.
Mr. Egarr shares out the music between two instruments, copies by Joel Katzman of 17th-century harpsichords - one of a Flemish Ruckers, the other of a Parisian instrument. The first is as sweet-sounding as can be, the second more incisive in tone, but both are superb instruments and ideally suited to the purpose. The recording, always a difficult balance to achieve, is excellent, and Mr. Egarr's booklet notes are fascinating. As far as I can tell there has been only one other complete survey of Louis' keyboard music on CD, by Davitt Moroney; it was highly regarded in its time but is no longer available. There are several other CDs available of selected suites and pieces, my favourites among the ones I know being by Gustav Leonhardt, Bob van Asperen and Huguette Grémy-Chauliac. But this complete set from Richard Egarr beats them all as far as I'm concerned; it's a bold project, quite beautifully executed, and altogether a wonderful as well as a well-priced offering to lovers of the baroque.
As for Louis Couperin's place in musical history - well, you'll want to judge this for yourself, but Richard Egarr's charismatic way with the keyboard certainly makes a brilliant case for it and wonderfully communicates his deep love of Louis' works. What I would say without a doubt, though, is that this is great music which, like Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier or Goldberg Variations, not only demands close attention but rewards it in full measure.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Mar 2013 11:37:46 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 20 Jun 2013 08:27:48 BDT]
Posted on 8 Apr 2013 00:54:44 BDT
Hi Stephen. How good or bad a representation of the sound of this set would you say Amazon's samples are? I've listened to them several times and somehow what I'm hearing doesn't grab me. I've read that Couperin's music has a subtle quality that requires careful listening, and of course that may not come across at all well in samples, but when I listened to the samples from the Cummings disc on Naxos I liked what I heard. Egarr's set has received glowing reviews and I usually find myself in agreement with your reviews, hence my feeling that the samples may not be a reliable guide in this case.
Posted on 8 Apr 2013 22:44:51 BDT
Stephen Midgley says:
I think you lose nearly all the subtleties, whether Couperin's or anyone else's, in these samples - not because of Amazon, but because nearly all our computers' sound systems, including mine, are lousy. It is surely futile to compare the sound of an internet sample on a computer with that of a CD played on a decent stereo system, although you can learn a bit by comparing samples from one recording with another. Anyway, good luck with your attempts.
In reply to an earlier post on 9 Apr 2013 00:41:07 BDT
Hi Stephen. You're right about computer sound systems of course, and that may well be the problem here. Comparing an internet sample with the sound of a good stereo system is unquestionably pointless (apples and oranges spring to mind), and the general unreliability of samples may even make comparisons of one sample to another something to treat with a degree of caution. I expect I'll go for Egarr's set, as the reviews I've seen have been so uniformly enthusiastic. If there really were a major problem with Egarr's performances, surely at least one reviewer would have spotted it.
As well as Louis Couperin's keyboard music, I'm also keen to acquire a set of Francois' works for harpsichord. The unavailability of some of the most highly rated sets means it's effectively a choice between Borgstede on Brilliant and Baumont on Warner (originally Erato I think). Do you have either or both of these sets? If so, I'd be very interested to hear your opinion.
Posted on 9 Apr 2013 16:10:45 BDT
Stephen Midgley says:
I don't have a complete set of Francois, no. I've heard some of the Baumont set and thought it pretty good, but of course Borgstede is highly regarded as well. You are right, some of the best sets of the past, such as those by Scott Ross and Kenneth Gilbert, are impossible to find. There are also some fine one- and two-disc selections around, of which I especially like those by Blandine Verlet (Couperin: Barricades mystérieuses, Pièces de Clavecin and Couperin: Works for Harpsichord), Leonhardt, Baumont and Frederick Haas.
In reply to an earlier post on 9 Apr 2013 18:02:51 BDT
Thanks Stephen. I'm leaning towards Baumont, as the consensus seems to be that his set brings out the introspective qualities of the music more than Borgstede's, which suits my taste. It seems the unavailability of highly regarded sets is not just restricted to Francois Couperin's keyboard music, but is also true of Rameau's harpsichord works too. Once again, Ross' set is impossible to find, with the choice effectively narrowed down to just two sets, Belder and Vinikour. It would be nice to see Brilliant acquire the rights to the deleted recordings and make them available again at reasonable prices. I've no doubt they'd sell very well.
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