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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
L'Alchimiste : Un petit théâtre du monde
Onziéme Ordre in C (1717) [19:23]
Vingt-Septiéme Ordre in B minor (1730) [17:05]
Dixneuviéme Ordre in D (1722) [16:50]
Quatrième Ordre in F (1713) [18:53]
Troisiême Ordre in C minor (1713) [34:37]
Vingtieme Ordre in G (1730) [20:34]
Bertrand Cuiller (harpsichord)
Isabelle Saint-Yves (bass viol: Vingtieme)
rec. 2017, location unspecified
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902375.76 [53:18 + 74:04]

What’s in a name? In an absorbing introductory essay which is as scholarly as it is entertaining, the historian and musicologist Manuel Couvreur considers the thorny issue of intitulation. He invokes the painter Antoine Watteau, whose famous Fêtes galantes were only given suitable titles after their engraving, as well as the moral philosopher Jean de la Bruyère, whose satirical work Caractères pokes fun at the court of King Louis XIV with sketches of real aristocrats, who are given pseudonyms, and whose moral failings are never named, so leaving it to the reader’s imagination and intellect to unravel. Among the most appealing characteristics of the French baroque keyboard repertoire are the titles given to individual pieces by the likes of the Forqueray père et fils, Rameau, Duphly and of course by Francois Couperin whose use of intitulation increased over time; whereas the pieces in his First Livre (1713) tend to be identified by the dance forms they represent, by the time of the Third Livre (1722) pieces are more customarily given titles, which one might think would provide clues both for performer and audience. In fact Couperin’s titles are profoundly ambiguous compared to those of his contemporaries. Some may constitute word games or alliterations, some are subtly humorous or ironic, while others are disguises or deliberately enigmatic. What Couperin did do for his interpreters was provide precise markings and instructions for performance, especially regarding the degree and types of embellishments to be employed. As the author of the seminal primer for keyboard practice of the time, L’art de toucher le clavecin, it is unsurprising that he was apparently mortally offended when these were ignored.

So why “L'Alchimiste”? Bertrand Cuiller, the performer on this splendid issue, explains that if the titles don’t give much away, there’s much to be learnt about the pieces, and about the different facets of Couperin the person, from the particular Ordres in which they are placed, and most importantly from their keys. As a consequence Cuiller sees particular keys in synesthetic terms; he suggests that when compiling the ordres (the individual pieces were already in the repertory) Couperin is perhaps knowingly combining particular elements to project different sides of himself. In fact, the other subtitle attached to this set is “Un petit théâtre du monde” which provides a further clue about Cuiller’s grand scheme regarding this projected complete edition of Couperin’s harpsichord works. He has adopted a thematic, rather than chronological approach to devising an order for the Ordres, as it were, and in this first volume which he describes as a ‘curtain- raiser’, he focuses on sequences which contain pieces inspired by, or alluding to the theatre. Cuiller also provides some tempting ‘hints’ as to how the project may eventually pan out, and offers up the tantalising possibility that other areas of Couperin’s oeuvre, such as vocal and chamber works, or even the organ masses, may find their way onto future discs in order to more fully ‘flesh out’ his conception of the composer.

The present issue certainly constitutes an auspicious start. Cuiller limits himself to just one superb instrument, a handsome 1977 harpsichord built by Philippe Humeau and copied from French examples drawn from the late 17th century. The first disc opens with the 11th Ordre in C which Cuiller asserts actually constitutes a miniature instrumental ‘play’ in five ‘acts’ (these are identified on the sleeve). These pieces are notably wry and humorous, with the opening La Castelane a kind of light march cast as an apt ‘ouverture’, three nimbly played central pieces which meld exuberance and grace before a final ‘act’ which is titled with one of Couperin’s most enigmatic ‘word-games’, Les Fastes de la grande, et Ancienne-Mxnxstrxndxsx (The splendours of the grand and ancient Order of Minstrelsy), the latter word disguised in order to take the rise out of a particular Parisian guild of musicians. Cullier enthusiastically embraces the irony in the mechanical repetitions, off-kilter drones and sudden about-turns of this weird piece. Its concluding pages exude a breathless élan.
By way of contrast, the 27th Ordre which follows is in B minor, and the four pieces therein comprise Couperin’s final such collection. Cuiller suggests that the depth of feeling implicit in the key perhaps intimates the imminence of mortality – the Fourth Livre from which this is drawn is dated 1730, three years before the composer’s death. Cuiller finds both nostalgia and a kind of disembodied stateliness in the opening allemande, L’Exquise. The seven-minute Les Pavots (Poppies) is marked, rather oddly, nonchalamment . To my ears this is Couperin at his most profoundly ambiguous and mysterious, and if there is nonchalance here Cuiller tenderly conveys its sense of shoulder-shrugging resignation. His profound engagement with this wonderful music is what most obviously emerges as these two discs proceed. The first disc concludes with the 19th Ordre in D, a collection imbued with playfulness and carried by Cuiller’s appreciable lightness of touch, while the titles here more overtly suggest the world of the theatre.

One wonders if Tommaso Giordani, the composer of possibly the vocal student’s most notorious practice piece ‘Caro mio ben’ was familiar with La Marche des Gris-vêtus (The march of those in grey clothes), the piece which opens the 4th Ordre in F. Its opening bars are identical. Cuiller describes the key of F in this context as “corresponding to a very dark blue, almost black and quite cold” and there is indeed something rather distant about his rendering of these pieces. The second piece has a tripartite design and bears the title Les Baccanales; this must be another enigmatic name as the music conveyed is most ‘unbacchanalian’. This Ordre is tellingly juxtaposed with its direct predecessor, the 3rd Ordre in C minor (not C major as implied on the sleeve), the longest sequence in this set. The 3rd Ordre explicitly begins in the style of a traditional French suite with the old style designations (Allemande, Courante, Gavotte et al) before Couperin sweeps the old verbiage aside and presents seven titled movements – this ‘liberation’ is palpable in terms of the music but Cuiller’s playing remains scrupulously respectful of Couperin’s markings. Perhaps the most winning music of all here occurs in the elegant ornamentations that suffuse the 20th Ordre in G, which concludes the second disc. These descriptively titled pieces perhaps elicit the most elegant playing of all, and they certainly bring out the best from the instrument by fully revealing the spectrum of delightful colours at Cuiller’s disposal. It’s also a bonus to hear additional hues courtesy of Isabelle Saint-Yves’ viola da gamba in the eccentrically titled fourth piece La croûilli ou la Couperinete.

It goes without saying that Harmonia Mundi’s recording is characteristically rich and warm, without being ‘in one’s face’. The Arles label sets a high bar in terms of their consistently faithful reproduction of the sound of the harpsichord. I eagerly look forward to collecting future instalments in what promises to be a fascinating series; eventually it will keep the box of Couperin Le Grand’s Uncle Louis’ parallel oeuvre (in Richard Egarr’s magisterial performances for the same label) good company on my shelves.
Richard Hanlon


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