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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Concerts Royaux (1722)
Les Talens Lyriques [Stéphanie-Marie Degand (violin), Georges Barthel (flute), Patrick Beaugiraud (oboe), Atsushi Sakaï (Viola da Gamba)]/Christophe Rousset (harpsichord)
rec. 20-23 December 2015, Lutheran Church of Saint-Pierre, Paris. DDD.
APARTÉ AP196 [62:10]

There is no one way to play this music, which exists simply on two staves, so can be performed by a solo keyboard player, though I don’t believe that there are any recordings in that form. Performed at the French court between 1714 and 1715, and published in 1722 as part of the Troisième livre de clavecin, the suites simply bring together these pieces in a form not originally conceived as a sequence. Couperin notes that the harpsichord may be supplemented ‘si l’on veut’, if desired, and Rousset’s line-up offers one of the more varied interpretations of that indication, less simple than the instrumentation of Trio Sonnerie (ASV CDGAU101, Presto CD or download) and akin to the more elaborate realisation of Le Concert des Nations and Jordi Savall (Alia Vox AVSA9840, SACD; AV9840, CD).

Couperin mentions the violin and transverse flute as possible additions, and a cello or other bass instrument is needed to supplement the keyboard, here the viola da gamba, while the oboe is also a logical addition. A rather different line-up performs the first concert on a Naxos recording entitled Inner Chambers which I enjoyed last year, performed by Les Ordinaires – the name taken from the intimate servants of the French King, so not ‘ordinary’ in the usual sense (8.573814 – review).

I’ve taken that recording as my reference point for Concert No.1. The performance is less up-front than from Les Talens Lyriques; it’s not just that the instrumentalists are less forwardly recorded, the mood is also less intense, with less flute and more bass in the balance, from the viola da gamba and theorbo combined in the case of Les Ordinaires. In the opening prelude, the effect on Naxos is to sound far more laid-back, yet the clock says that it’s 20 seconds faster. In the third movement sarabande Les Ordinaires are speedier, this time by quite an amount, but in the closing minuet it’s Les Talens Lyriques who are faster, with Les Ordinaires sounding rather sedate.

Generally speaking, the faster tempi work better in the livelier sections of this dance-based music, so the reckoning is about even in that regard. I like the way that there’s less flute in the mix from Les Ordinaires and more of the bass – the flute is sometimes a little too prominent for my taste from Les Talens Lyriques. On the other hand, Les Ordinaires are rather too fast in the sarabande, where Les Talens Lyriques capture the more solemn mood of this dance.

From Trio Sonnerie there’s no flute, just violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The effect is quite different again, with a good balance between the instruments and a feeling of greater intimacy overall, especially in the sarabande, where the stately pace, as on Aparté, suits the music.

With three versions, each offering different pros and cons, I turned to Jordi Savall, half expecting to find a wild, unrestrained sound. Instead I found a model of balance in the opening prelude, with the oboe prominent but not over-prominent. With tempi a little on the slow side, this is probably my ideal compromise version – not a word I had expected to use of a Savall recording. Those requiring better-than-CD sound should note that it comes as an SACD; there’s a separate CD release for those without the necessary player.

Having been a little critical of Les Talens Lyriques by direct comparison with other recordings, I have to say that, taken on their own merits, I found their recording very enjoyable. If you want to hear the at their best, try track 11, the airs tendrement which conclude the second concert. This is as good as Couperin gets, even in the works which I like the most, mentioned below, and it receives as fine a performance as you are likely to hear.

The sarabandes of the third and fourth concerts are ethereal from Les Talens Lyriques. That in the fourth concert, where violin and flute duet in such a way as to banish feelings of the flute dominating, is followed by as sprightly a performance of the rigaudon as you are likely to hear, its légèrement et marqué indication followed to the letter.

Could there be a better way to end this recording than with the excellent performance of the forlane en rondeau which ends the fourth concert? Gaiement is what it says, and that’s what you get. Elsewhere, I retain a nagging suspicion that the prominence of the flute or oboe may not be to all tastes. With so many different ways of realising the bare bones of Couperin’s music, I recommend sampling if you can: Naxos Music Library has the new Aparté, Les Ordinaires and the Trio Sonnerie, while Qobuz has the Savall.

Would I start a collection of Couperin’s music with the Concerts Royaux? There are, I think, other priorities. Another Aparté release this month, on 2 CDs, brings Les Talen Lyriques in Les Nations, a recording which I haven’t yet heard, but it has been well received. I think that series of depictions of various nationalities would be a good place to start, with fine recordings from Jordi Savall again, this time with Hespèrion XX (AVSA9928, SACD), from the Purcell Quartet on two separate Chandos recordings (CHAN0684 and 0729) and from Juillard Baroque (Naxos 8.573347-48 – review). The Chandos and Naxos are considered in DL News 2015/4 .

Best of all, however, are the pieces where Couperin sought overtly to reconcile the French and Italian styles, his apotheoses of Lully and Corelli, of which there is a fine recording by London Baroque (BIS-CD-1275, DL News 2013/11). Bargain lovers should be aware that (the new name) is offering the Savall recording of Les Nations for £2.99 (mp3) or £3.99 (lossless), without booklet. They also continue to offer the two multi-CD extracts from the Brilliant Classics Couperin chamber music for £4.49 each.

For all this, the Concerts Royaux contain some beautiful music and the performances from Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset grew on me as I listened to them. With good recording and an informative set of notes – the English often a shortened paraphrase of the original French – this new release is well worth considering. But do investigate the other music which I have mentioned, and bear in mind that there are other ways to play this charming music.

Brian Wilson

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