FRANÇOIS COUPERIN: Leçons de Ténèbres; SÉBASTIEN DE BROSSARD: Trio Sonatas; Stabat Mater – Lucy Crowe and Elizabeth Watts, sopranos/ La Nuova Musica/ David Bates – Harmonia mundi/PIAS HMU 807659, 70:20 (9-9-16) *****:
Francois Couperin vs. Jean-Phillipe Rameau.
Strange to think that François Couperin, harpsichordist to Louis XIV, and Rameau, the other great French harpsichordist of the time, may never have met. It would have been an interesting meeting; their music is so different, Couperin’s more delicate, more filigreed, perfumed, reflective, splendid, whereas Rameau’s was like that too, but definitely more drop-dead brilliant.
For decades, Couperin lived as the more important of the two, more relevant to the original-instrument discoveries of our modern age that were spearheaded by keyboard players and instrumentalists in general, but recently as opera from all periods has become huge international business, Couperin eclipsed the younger virtuoso, in large part part if not primarily due to the spectacular pomp and circumstance of the big moments, the irresistibly catchy nature of his dance tunes, and the melting beauty of his romance. For decades, Fr. Couperin lived as the more important of the two to our modern age, but recently he has been eclipsed the younger virtuoso, in large part part if not primarily due to the enthusiasm and color of Rameau’s dance tunes, and the melting beauty of his romance.
Hearing Couperin at the height of his very different powers throws a light on just how musically rich and abundant the age was. For his three surviving Leçons des ténèbres, a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which had become a testing ground for composers showing off their range of emotions for highly formal, narrowly-focused royal and by extension universal functions, the music is far more than notes. It is ambiance and affect, and the ability to make such lovely sounds as Couperin actually intended and designed to please, if not the gods, than very godlike creatures.
Brossard was a French music theorist, composer and collector of the early 18th century. He enthusiastically embraced Italian music and became a collector of music manuscripts and treatises. He was named a vicar at Strasbourg Cathedral and wrote a collection of 157 sonatas. He also wrote the music dictionary in French and offered his rich library and its catalog to Louis XV, in exchange for a pension. Now at the Bibliotheque national de France, the manuscript is an incomparable information source on music bibliography, the quality of printings, aesthetics, and the musical theory of the era.
The performances by La Nuova Musica, founded by its artistic director David Bates in 2007 while in residency at Snape Maltings, are exquisite; each of the performers inhabits the music with nuanced grace and of implied meaning, as if they had themselves been transported back in time.
The sound, recorded at nice old St. Augustine’s Church in North London, is as glorious as anything Harmonia mundi produced in in its analogue heyday. The team headed by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and Robina G. Young have captured the music with a kind of tangible aural beauty that adds an extraordinary 3D quality to the experience.