Francois Couperin – Concerts Royaux – Stephen Schultz, Jory Vinikour – Music & Arts

by | Sep 2, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Francois Couperin- Concerts Royaux – Stephen Schutlz (Baroque flute) Jory Vinikour (harpsichord); Music & Arts-1302  60:39,  6/2021

Louis XIV was the last of the great French Monarchs to adhere to the strict Court ceremonial, an exacting choreography that saw him move like clockwork through a daily routine of private and state performances attended by a retinue of tenders, manipulators and advisers.  In this everything mattered. The very well-being of the State reposed on the correct order of things from his morning toilet to his entertainment.  As a young King he was an avid dancer and turning his courtiers into dancers was famously a stroke of genius; it consolidated his power under the guise of showmanship. But later in life, poor health, gout, obesity and melancholy overtook the Sun King. Frivolous entertainment was pushed aside, replaced after his second marriage to a pious minded queen by the daily mass. Soon the orbits of his official purposes were  compromised by the erratic humours; he became a most melancholy monarch. 

Fortunately for the King, there was an effective remedy at hand. I’m not referring to the many physicians and chemists at court with their quack potions and bloodletting; the best they could hope for ​​was a harmless placebo. Rather it was the musicians who were the 18th century technicians of  spiritual malaise.  One might think from a modern perspective that this means removing the cause or banishing the symptoms, but that is to misunderstand the concept and its importance in the 18th century. Melancholy was a condition that could be aggravated and alleviated but it also a shape of the soul; an irremediable condition. Thus for such a sufferer the best that could be done was a sweetening of the melancholy; this is the exact term used by Couperin for the purposes of this specific music.  And still for the modern listener, this is the great achievement of this style: its ability to stir a joy-tinged sadness, a simultaneous embracing of the world’s pain and beauty. It is a quality found in much great art but has a special attachment to the long lost traditions of 18th century music of the French Court. 

Francois Couperin’s Concerts Royaux were published just before the death of the great monarch and are a summing up of all that is most refined and exquisite in the chamber music that was meant to both please the King and hold up a mirror to the exquisite taste of the court.  The four concerts are based on the dance suites; each with its own set of metrical and aesthetic suggestions. The swaying Sarabande, the brisk Courante, the Gavotte with its lifting of the feet. Within the ultra refined courly chambers, these dances rhythms are absorbed into the musical language of Couperin, with its intimate grammar of embellishment, melodic nuance and contrapuntal undergirding,

Portrait Stephen Schulz Baroque Flute

Stephen Schultz

 A new recording of the Concerts on the Music & Arts label offers us a privileged experience of this most intimate music. This label which records at the Skywalker Studio in Marin county, California does an especially fine job with Early Music, balancing the softer instruments nicely while focusing on the smallest details of timbre and color in the always hard-to-record harpsichord. The leader of the session, Stephen Schultz is a veteran of the transverse flute and as always delivers a purity of tone and superb technique. There is no sense of routine in his playing, but always a delicate attention to breath and shape. On the pieces where he plays off a second flute played expertly by Mindy Rosenfeld there is just enough contrast in sonorities and a nicely achieved acoustic space between the instruments. 

Perhaps the real star of the recording however is harpsichordist Jory Vinikour; or more particularly his instrument, a John Philips 1995 copy of a Ruckers. There is a nice picture of it in the first-rate liner notes. The listener is just close enough to hear a bit of machine clatter but that is swept away by the sweetness of tone and balance. Vinikour is one of the leading specialists of the 18th century harpsichord and here he is at his best with an exceptionally fine instrument. 

Couperin Score Concerto in FWhile Couperin was famously the first to write out his ornamentation, providing us with a complete 18th method for what had been an annotated practice, the embellishments feel spontaneous and improvised. THis is one of the great satisfactions of this outstanding recording; not on the sound but the way the harpsichord details make the melodies waft and float while the subtle rhythms keep one just above a pleasant somnolence.

It is hard to pick out one of the suites as superior to the rest but for me the Second Suite in D is worth sampling (on stream)  as the single flute dances especially gracefully with the VIola da Gamba of Alexa Haynes Pilon. There is also a  Fugue -Gayement   provides such a contrast to  Couperin’s great contemporary Bach in its contrapuntal levity. An Air tendre finds a lyrical simplicity of an affecting quality.

There is just enough instrumental variety in this recital to please partisans of any of the three instruments.   Just when the flutes become too dreamy there is a lively duo Gavotte for harpsichord and gamba. Each of the dances is short in duration; meters change;It feels more like one is changing  partners on the dance floor rather than spinning around on the merry-go-round as one does not unfrequently in some Baroque recitals. The final Quatrieme Concert is distinguished by the minor key which adds a sobriety to the night’s refreshment. 

 We must thank Music & Arts for another top notch production and Stephen Schultz and comrades for an dedicated and thoughtful presentation of the highlights of the French Baroque repertory.

—Fritz Balwit

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Francois Couperin - Concerts Royaux - Stephen Schulz, Album Cover