The rocket-launch opening to Francois Couperin’s Messe à l’usage ordinaire des paroisses, por les fêtes solennelles
is one of my favourite moments in organ music, so I was well up for experiencing it as a follow-up to David Ponsford’s excellent previous volume on NI 6213
The reedy, throaty tones of the historical Levasseur/Dangeville organ at the Prytanée National Militaire certainly do not disappoint, with plenty of character and power and all of that French pungency which makes glorious music into something which can insinuate itself into your very soul. There is no lack of subtlety or contrast in this piece or the way it is performed however, and even at 51 minutes I still come away feeling rejuvenated. As an organist of long experience – he inherited his father’s post as organist at St Gervais in Paris at the age of eleven – Couperin would have known what kind of music would keep his congregations awake, and this Messe
is full of secular dance styles and ingenious adaptations of the Mass’s plainchant origins. David Ponsford’s booklet notes also point out the contrast in performance styles between Italian and French influences, so that rhythmic inégalité
is not eternally pervasive.
Charpentier’s Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues
is related to Couperin’s work in more ways than one, and the questions of cross-pollination between the two composers is raised by Ponsford in his notes. This work was originally not for solo organ as the title suggests, and alternative
recordings use instrumental ensembles of winds and strings. David Ponsford has transcribed Charpentier’s Messe
for organ and this is its première recording in this form. The score is incomplete in any case, but the echo effects of the Offertoire
were considered impossible for performance on a solo organ and so this has been dropped from this version. The remaining Kyrie
do however make highly convincing organ pieces in the context of this genre, and as Ponsford points out, the chance is good that these 14 movements represent something like the daily improvised organ masses of the period.
These two volumes from Nimbus Alliance, NI 6213 and NI 6225 belong very much together, and with excellent recordings and performances I can’t recommend them too highly. The historic organ sound is perhaps an acquired taste if you are used to the more woolly and generous tones of later instruments, but if you really like your Couperin then you know in your heart of hearts that this is where his music really belongs. Once you’ve heard these I suspect you will soon be hooked, and after that there’s no turning back.