Bach - Couperin
Johann Sebastian Bach: Overture/Partita, BWV 831; François Couperin: 8ième ordre, Pièces de clavecin, book 2). Encelade, (p) 2011; Time: 62 minutes; Rating: (4/5).
The juxtoposition of music from two different composers, music more or less equal in length, is a reasonable start to the planning of a program for a recording or recital. In this case, the coupling is by two composers who likely never met but were contemporaneous and shared reknown as members of very musical families.
What makes this pairing even more apt is that the music of Bach, his French Overture/Partita (BWV 831) is presented before a suite by François Couperin (the 8ième ordre).
Jean-Luc Ho made the recording back in 2011-12 on a French historic instrument in the environment of a small church. The low pitch (a = 406 Hz) and meantone tuning give particular color to the music. The combination of the recorded quality and/or the instrument are one notch behind the strong playing by Ho.
In the Bach, the beast is the opening Overture, enough music on its own. Bach here is embracing the form used in his orchestral suites, with a grandiose opening followed by a faster, fugal section. The large scale work is well-executed by Ho, who capitalizes upon the contrasts already present in the music. His reading of the seven dances (three of which come with doubles) are even in tempo but don't feel slavish to any metronome. He also uses the availability of two keyboards to add contrast, as is required in the ultimate movement, the Echo. It is unfortunately the only movement that left in me in want for more: I just have heard it faster before and rather could have had it faster.
The earlier suite by Couperin, while "French," is cut from a very different cloth than the piece by Bach. How interesting it would have been to have these two meet, or even perform for one another? What would have Bach thought of themes reminicient of French opera-ballet airs? Or Couperin of Bach's imitation of the French style? We'll never know.
Take the Bach/Couperin Courantes as a comparison. Bach's whiffs of the overture, a dance perhaps for a fully-suited aristocrat with swagger. Couperin's, by contrast, is far more tender and light in texture (to which Ho aptly matches the sound of his instrument). His second courante is also more intimate, quite reminicient of a piece for lute, specifically one with extended bass notes. In this light, the chosen instrument seems at home.
Listening to the gigues of Bach and Couperin side-by-side is arresting! Ho matches tempo and the rhythmic pulse of both so satisfyingly brings these pieces together. While Couperin's gigue capitalizes upon the rhythmic gestures at expense of melody, it's difficult to step away not believing Bach's Gigue is quite superior. While just as januty, Bach manages to write far more interesting melodic material that is perhaps better integrated.
Couperin's Passacaille is an interesting piece, one of his more familiar from his collection of pieces for harpsichord. The rising harmonic progression is truly an inventive device, one that is used to hold significant filigree in the form of ornaments. Ho's interpretation is very satisfying.
Tender details is what dominates the close of Couperin's ordre. And it's an apt reminder that it's all those ornaments that seem missing from Bach's music. It's the "Frenchness" he perhaps didn't quite master.
The recital may not be of interest if you already own good interpretations of both Couperin and Bach; but the recital's concept is a winner, and for those not familiar with Jean-Luc Ho, this may just well be a reason to explore these works again.