To my mind, when I hear the name “Couperin” I often immediately think of the harpsichord. Both François and Louis Couperin both are well-known for their harpsichord pieces. But François also should be known for chamber music. I wanted to bring this to light because it is of high quality and likely isn’t as well known or appreciated as it should be, at least when it is performed by some of the ensembles I have collected.
One of the strongest examples of affective playing comes from the Ricercar Consort with their Apothéoses album. The odd part about it is the spoken word that is included as part of the music tracks, announcing the written word that was printed to guide what is happening in the music. When performers do this, I don’t mind as much if the spoken portions are included on separate tracks; unfortunately here, it’s all embedded with the music. But the violin playing, especially is so nice, I can over look the matter because the recording is so good. I should also add that it’s not an epidemic in the entire CD, either.
Musica Ad Rhenum more recently released a re-issue of their 7 discs of Couperin, which made for a rather good steal to grab many chamber pieces within the multi-disc set format. The bonus is the different interpretation and instrumentation they offer, compared to other recordings I had. In general, they play with a swift wind to their backs, which in a few places, almost felt rushed. But there is plenty of virtuosity that made it possible, and I’m always open to a different way to hear things.
Speaking of playing things differently, sometimes it’s because Couperin was not verbose about performance practice. A good example is the Concerts Royaux, which can be played by harpsichord(s), or with melody instruments, too. The Musica Ad Rhenum edition is colored a lot with flute (the director’s instrument), but for even more elegance and color, Savall’s Concert des Nations also recorded the suites too. The same works appeared on Christoph Rousset’s recording of Couperin’s Troisième Livre of harpsichord pieces, helped in parts by extra hands from William Christie.
Musica Antiqua Köln too has recorded Couperin. The suite La Sultane appears on their Le Parnasse Français album, unfortunately not with the fidelity of sound from later recordings, such as the one by Musica Ad Rhenum. Their recording of Les Nations, however, faired better, and features some strong violin playing (as one might expect), even despite the age on the recording.
I’d recommend as a starting point either the Le Parnasse di Corelli or Les Nations as a starting point, to give you an idea of Couperin’s style and his brand of French flavor. His time of activity clearly puts him at the height of French baroque instrumental music, without any fears of his music tainted with galant-ness that plagued later composers. The most modern he gets, perhaps, is the set of Nouveaux Concerts, with his attempt to synthesize both Italian and French styles. While melody is of a primary importance, the music holds onto enough figuration to clearly still be identified as baroque. The version recorded by Musica Ad Rhenum varies the melody instruments with harpsichord with viola da gamba, bassoon, violin, etc.
Incidentally, if you’d like a taste of François Couperin for solo harpsichord without buying the entire banks of ordres, I’ve always been fond of the recital published in 1990 by Skip Sempé on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
- François Couperin Chamber Music by Musica Ad Rhenum - Brilliant Classics
- François Couperin Pièces de Clavecin - Skip Sempé, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
- François Couperin Les Concerts Royaux - Le Concert de Nations - Alia Vox
- François Couperin Les Nations - Musica Antiqua Köln - DG Archiv
- François Couperin Apothéoses - Ricercar Consort - Mirare