François COUPERIN. Les Nations—Les Talens Lyriques, dir. Christophe Rousset—Aparté AP197—1 hour, 49 minutes ****1/2:
For me, the reference I have for François Couperin’s instrumental suites, Les Nations, is the 1981 recording by Musica Antiqua, Köln (MAK). While the sound quality of that recording pales compared to more modern performances, director Reinhard Goebel’s gift in performance on violin makes this recording a special one. Since those many years ago, other historically-informed ensembles have tackled these works, each of them taking liberties as the composer no doubt intended in choosing different treble instruments to realize the three-part writing.
Goebel’s recording sounds somewhat similar to the speed demons in Musica Ad Rhenum, who released the suites in 2004 on Brilliant Classics. They both share a close miking, although I can’t say the sound quality is any better with the ensemble directed by ex-MAK alum, American flautist Jed Wentz.
Each of Couperin’s suites, named after a location, underscores the concept of regional style and themes apparent in the 1720s. Couperin’s works are a synthesis of prevailing Italianate and French styles in music. The whiff to modern ears might be predominately French, but the writing in the lead sonatas in each suite introduce the type of contrapuntal writing, and even phantasticus elements that were born in Italy. The dances that follow woul have been more familiar to Couperin’s audience, a sequence of French dances: allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, and the like.
This new recording features both flutes and violins, but also oboes as melody instruments and is directed by the famous harpsichordist, Christophe Rousset. The recording is far more atmospheric, with the microphones further from the instrumentalists. The tempos are well chosen, but don’t approach the ferocious velocities adopted by Musica Ad Rhenum.
After first sampling this new release, I had the occasion to travel to France and hear Les Talens Lyriques in their more familiar repertoire, opera. There was no question of their authority in the genre (in my case, it was Handel), and both the singers and instrumentalists were first-rate. I expected no less in a recording of a rather familiar instrumental work.
What stands out in this recording for me is the emphasis placed on the strong beats in the dances; it’s easy to leave these accents alone and to ignore them as a listener; but the accents help us identify one dance from another. And following those beats throughout helps us recognize the patterns that constrained Couperin’s writing. And these accents aren’t always heard in the same way: when a musician today sees the accent above the note, it has a particular connotation about articulation. Rousset directs his chamber group to not only provide this type of strong emphasis in some dances, but in others, the pulse is felt through the spacing between notes. I’d like to think it was Rousset’s traversal of so many harpsichord suites that guided his performance thinking here. By all accounts, he should be among the world’s foremost experts.
In the Sarabande to the fourth suite, La Piémontoise, we’re treated to a rather free-flowing harpsichord part and this dance likewise epitomizes the use of space in phrasing to direct the flow of the dance, over strong accents alone. The comparison to the 1981 MAK recording makes the earlier performance sound too elementary and the continuo harpsichord is nothing but the most basic.
In the Gavotte from the second suite, L’Espangole, there’s a jauntiness that betrays anything I might think is Spanish; but the dotted rhythm feels at home within the context of the French baroque. In fact, it’s over the top and the result is tantalizingly fresh.
And every once in a while we can revel in the ornaments provided in the bass viol parts played by Atsushi Sakaï.
Under Rousset’s direction, I think the rendition here by Les Talens Lyriques succeeds in countering several fast movements with slower-than-average Sarabandes, which become opportunities to revel in the low-French pitch of these original instruments and their copies. The contrasts in tempo are also matched by contrasts in timbre, by employing a rich variety of instruments, including theorbo, bassoon, and the triple-play of melody instruments: violins, flutes, and oboes.
My only disappointment with this performance is with the quality of the recorded sound and the choices the recording engineers made in keeping their distance from the ensemble. To be clear, the sound isn’t bad or compromised; but the microphones were far enough away to capture a significant amount of the ambiance of la Galerie Dorée of the Banque of France. (I often find recordings adopting more ambiance are easier to enjoy with loudspeakers, but as I auditioned this release using headphones, the effect became disappointing compared to the other referenced recordings that employed a close miking, in studio.) Such a reverberant space robs us of the joys of hearing the instruments in full focus and forces us to consider what types of performance spaces Couperin would have expected for these works?
For the buyer, the compromise isn’t hard; these are among the best performances of the works, acoustics be damned.
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