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Music from the Age of Louis XIV – John Kitchen, harpsichord – Delphian

Music from the Age of Louis XIV [TrackList follows] – John Kitchen, 1755 Baillon harpsichord – Delphian DCD34109, 77:34 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ****:

This disc is part of a series from Delphian and harpsichordist John Kitchen, a series highlighting the various treasures of the Rodger Mirrey Collection of instruments, part of the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments (in Scotland).

The particular harpsichord used for this recording is a 1755 model by Burgundy-based harpsichord builder Luigi Baillon. A rare example of a non-Parisian harpsichord from the French School, the tone is clean and has an absolutely razor-sharp edge, the bass notes possessing a richness and clarity that provide a most excellent foundation for the rest of the music. This clarity and depth of tone makes the melodies very clear indeed, and both the low and high registers of the instrument are evenly balanced, with neither register overwhelming the other at any point. The instrument is beautifully weighted in every respect. Where its Parisian counterparts are famed for their alluring, dark and rich tone, this Burgundian harpsichord has a bright and clean tone that suits the music remarkably well (despite it being several decades younger than the music on the programme). The music highlights the unique qualities of this double-manual instrument, each one highlighting the best of the other.

The 1755 Baillon harpsichord has its home at St.Cecilia’s Hall, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall, and the venue of this recording (1/9&10/10). In short, the hall is an excellent venue for this kind of music. With a lively but tasteful acoustic, the harpsichord’s tone is able to expand into the space and realize its full potential, something that is augmented by Kitchen’s playing.

Kitchen is a highly accomplished keyboard player, and this is very clear from the high quality of musicianship on display in this recording. His playing is elegant and expressive, but steady and never without purpose. The music moves as it should.  This is particularly outstanding in the Suites – these are suites of dance movements, and Kitchen treats them properly as such! The ornamentation is also tastefully employed and subtly implemented. The articulation and musical sensitivity displayed throughout the recording is remarkable, and deserves only the highest praise.

Something that makes this recording even more special is Delphian’s 24-bit sound recording set-up. It is sublime. The crystal-clear pickup allows for an optimal balance between instrument and venue, so much so that I felt as if I was close enough to be Kitchen’s page turner! Another thing I really enjoyed was that the equipment even picked up the point at the end of each piece where Kitchen lifted his hands from the instrument. The sound of the mechanism being released is a satisfying one, and I found it added even more character to the performance.

Louis Marchand’s Suite in D Minor is a fine work, published in Paris between 1699 and 1702. One of only two suites that make up the entirety of Marchand’s harpsichord compositions (he was a famed organist, and admired by J.S. Bach for his skill at the harpsichord), there is a prelude followed by a number of dances in the established order. From nimble and fluent courantes, to an authoritative and confident chaconne, to a tastefully playful menuet, the Suite explores a variety of moods and colours, and Kitchen’s sensitive playing captures all of these features very well.

The Tocade opening Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s Suite in F Major is unique, the only instance of such a piece in the entire French harpsichord repertory. The suite is a fine example of French baroque music, and it is safe to say that it is a remarkable piece from a remarkable woman. I particularly enjoyed the faster movements of the suite, as the clean tone and Kitchen’s nuanced playing really brought the sophisticated counterpoint to life.

Anglebert’s Tombeau de M. de Chambonnières is likewise a wonderful piece of music. A heartfelt, contemplative and dignified tribute to his predecessor at Louis XIV’s court, the Tombeau is wonderfully profound and impressively ornamented. Despite the harpsichord’s plucked mechanism, Kitchen’s expressive playing brings a wonderful sense of legato and calm across the whole piece, adding to the air of solemnity about it.

Nice to hear some work from Jean-Baptiste Lully – his indirect influence on English music, that of his contemporaries (mostly Grabu, who was employed in the English court), and the effect it had on a young Henry Purcell form a part of my current scholarly interests. The melodies in the menuets are often dainty, and the higher register of the harpsichord brings this out well, distinguishing the melody from the bass without disconnecting the two. There is a remarkable sense of unity across music and instrument. The Chanconne is also wonderfully steady, and the tempo lively yet tasteful.

François Couperin’s Allemande: La Ténébreuse brought out the darker side of the harpsichord, a sound more reminiscent of one of the Baillon’s Parisian counterparts. The escalated richness, accompanied by Kitchen’s often arpeggiated (broken) chording gave the piece a broadness that bordered on regal solemnity – perfect for this disc

His is perhaps the most balanced courante on the disc in terms of mood. Lying between the playful courantes of Jacquet and the solemn courantes of Marchand, they are well balanced, and played with an abundance of direction and purpose. The lively and elegant pace of ‘La Lutine’ was a wonderful way to end this disc of French harpsichord music

The only small grievance I have with this disc comes in Louis Couperin’s Pavanne in F Sharp Minor – there are some points in the piece where the instrument experiences tuning issues, and it doesn’t sit very well with me. It perhaps bothered me a bit more than usual because I have perfect pitch, but even taking relative tuning and appropriate chromaticism into account, some of the notes just do not sit right.

However, I am not going to let that take away from what is an absolutely superlative disc of music. This superb disc is a wonderful representation of some of the finest music from the French Harpsichord School, played with sophistication, emotion, and mastery. C’est magnifique!

TrackList:

Anglebert:

Tombeau de Monsieur de Chambonnieres

Couperin, F:

Pièces de clavecin II: Ordre 11ème in C major (extracts)

Couperin, L:

Pavane in F sharp minor

Jacquet de la Guerre:

Suite IV in F major

Lully:

Dans nos bois Silvandre s’escrietranscr. D’Angelbert

Le jeune Iris – Menuet

transcr. D’Angelbert

Les Songes agreables from Atys

transcr. D’Angelbert

Chaconne from Phaeton

transcr. D’Angelbert

Chambonnières agréables

transcr. D’Angelbert

Marchand, L:

Suite No.1 in D minor

—Jake Barlow

 

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