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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733)
Les Nations
Premier Ordre: La Françoise [21:16]
Deuxième Ordre: L'Espagnole [29:42]
Troisième Ordre: L'Impériale [29:32]
Quatrième Ordre: La Piémontoise [21:25]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Aria in F (BWV 587)* [2:44]
Les Ombres (Sylvain Sartre, Sarah van Cornewal (transverse flute), Johanne Maitre, Katharina Andres (oboe), Mélanie Flahaut (bassoon), Katharina Heutjer, Marie Rouquié, Louis Creac'h (violin), Margaux Blanchard (viola da gamba), Vincent Flückiger (archlute, theorbo, guitar), Nadja Lesaulnier (harpsichord))/Margaux Blanchard, Sylvain Sartre
Benjamin Alard (organ)*
rec. 1-9 April 2012, Temple Lanterne, Lyon; 6 June 2012, Eglise Saint-Rémy, Dieppe*, France
EDITIONS AMBRONAY AMY035 [50:58 + 54:54]

In 1726 François Couperin published a collection of four sonatas and suites under the title Les Nations. The compositions were called ordres; each comprised a trio sonata in Italian style and a suite of French dances. They can be considered an expression of Couperin's ideal of the goûts réünis (the union of tastes) which he had already used as the title of a collection of instrumental pieces printed in 1724. Three of the trio sonatas were written many years back, in the 1690s.
At that time Couperin was one of the first advocates of the Italian style, but as many French music-lovers were vehemently opposed to anything Italian in music he didn't dare to present them as compositions from his pen. The three sonatas bore the titles of La Pucelle, La Visionnaire and L'Astrée respectively. These titles were derived from various literary works but it is unlikely that they express any ideas from these works. Otherwise Couperin wouldn't have changed their names in Les Nations. La Pucelle was now called La Françoise, La Visionnaire became L'Espagnole and L'Astrée turned into La Piémontoise. The fourth ordre, L'Impériale, was completely new.
It is interesting to see how various interpreters assess these works and the consequences for the interpretation. Most consider these works as rather modern and forward-looking. In their programme-notes Margaux Blanchard and Sylvain Sartre even see historical and political connotations. "Going far beyond a theoretical principle, he [Couperin] is thinking here of the very evolution of French music, an invitation proffered to the great Italian masters (but also those of Germany, England, Spain), a symbol of open frontiers, of hybridisation, which does not evade the issue of arrangements and other compromises. This is a new way of looking at France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. In a word, the idea of Europe is born".
Reinhard Goebel, on the other hand, considered these sonatas as rather old-fashioned, as he expressed in the liner-notes to the recording by his ensemble Musica antiqua Köln (Archiv, 1983). He asks why Couperin chose to publish "a work in what was by that time a completely outmoded form, especially as he stated in the preface that the sonatas (...) were to be understood merely as introductions to the suites". He then states: "Les Nations may, therefore, be regarded as Couperin's tribute to the style classique of the 17th century: highly refined, stylized chamber music which does not enter the sphere of absolute instrumental music such as had become familiar, in a specifically French form, since 1723 at the latest with the appearance of Jean-Marie Leclair's first volume of sonatas." He mentions discrétion, beauté and délicatesse as features of these works, in opposition to the "excesses of virtuosity" which were characteristic of the Italian music performed at the Concert Spirituel at that time.
This has consequences for the instrumentation. He chooses violins for the trio sonatas because these were associated with the Italian trio sonata. The oboe is excluded because it only played in open-air performances and colla parte with the strings in the opera orchestra. That is indeed true for the 17th century. However, at the time Les Nations was published, the oboe had already made its way into chamber music, and the trio sonata was not exclusively associated with the violin anymore. That justifies the scoring which is followed in this recording by Les Ombres. Moreover, the upper part is referred to as simply dessus, meaning any sort of treble instrument. "The stimulus for this recording of Les Nations was a desire to colour, to vary, notably through the use of a wide palette of instrumentations". Here we hear violins, transverse flutes and oboes in various combinations. Not only the viola da gamba but also the bassoon participates in the basso continuo.
At the same time the style of playing of Les Ombres is pretty close to Goebel's characteristics: discreet, beautiful and delicate. The ensemble plays well and I have certainly enjoyed this recording. Even so I could imagine a more engaging, more daring and contrasty performance, such as the one by Musica ad Rhenum (Brilliant Classics, 2004). They also use generally faster tempi, "based on contemporary metronome indications for French dance and theatre music", as their director, Jed Wentz, claims in his liner-notes. This is a subject which definitely deserves more research. Musica antiqua Köln's tempi are also usually faster than those of Les Ombres.
However, as I already indicated, this recording is enjoyable and makes for pleasant listening. The second disc ends with a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, played by Benjamin Alard at the organ. The Aria in F (BWV 587) is an arrangement of the légèrement from the sonata in L'Impériale. Unfortunately it is in the same track as the last movement of La Piémontoise. It starts at 2:43 of that track (17).
Johan van Veen