LOUIS COUPERIN: Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript = Three suites  (d minor, g minor, A Major) and other dances. – Pavel Kolesnikov, piano – Hyperion 

by | Apr 4, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

Pavel Kolesnikov devotes a refined disc to the music of Louis Couperin, one of the pillars of the French clavecin school. 

LOUIS COUPERIN: Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript = Suite in d minor; Suite in g minor; Suite in A Major; Allemande Grave in F Major; Chaconne in F Major; Chaconne ou Passacaille in g minor; Pavane in f-sharp minor; Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher – Pavel Kolesnikov, piano – Hyperion CDA68224, 79:11 (3/3018) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****: 

For the French Baroque, the esteemed Couperin family occupies a singular place, and Louis Couperin (1626-1661) perhaps deserves the celebrity of his brother Francois (1668-1733).  As composer, harpsichord player, organist, and viol performer, Louis built a solid reputation, especially as his music became, in the words of Abbe Le Gallois, “valued by the learned [for its] full… chords and enriched with beautiful dissonances, imagery, and imitation.”   Louis Couperin’s music—serving the special province of the French clavecinistes—delights in the use of suspensions, and proceeds in a style that fluctuates between serenity and emotional turmoil.  Highly influenced by Johann Jakob Froberger, Louis Couperin left some 120 pieces for harpsichord, assembled in random order after 1676 in an anthology, the Bauyn Manuscript, copied anonymously. The pieces follow the arrangement by ascending tonalities: C Major, C Minor, etc.; and, following the procedures set by Froberger, of suite-sequence: two pairs of slow and fast dances of divergent, national styles.  Other pieces lack specific note-values and rely on short and long curves around the notes which hint at whether notes are short or sustained, a mannerism obliged to lute tradition and arpeggiaton, in which strings would be strummed in the course of evolving melodic lines, improvisatory and brilliant, at once.

That Kolesnikov has decided to record (14-16 March 2017) Louis Couperin on a modern Yamaha CFX instrument, utilizing two, separate keyboard actions, means he sacrifices the acoustics—namely overtones—of the original musical context, so that the hard patina of the modern piano might realize the “sympathies” of the composer. Kolesnikov feels free to vary the progression of national styles: the Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, and Gigues, and he varies the tempos of selected dances. We sense that the softer sound world of the lute and harpsichord would retain the more subtle colors of the originals, but we must admire the academic and digital virtuosity of Kolesnikov’s musical imagination.

The opening Suite in d minor consists of seven numbers, including what he calls “Canaries,” or fast gigues, which uphold a recurrent rhythm pattern of short-long, long-short-long. The various allemandes enjoy bold, passing dissonances and upbeat figurations. Independent melodic lines occupy each hand. The courantes like to shift accents among three groups of two and two groups of three beats. Couperin’s fast dances revel in imitation and canon. The triple-meter sarabandes—originally from Spain—employ chromatic lines and free use of ornaments.  With his canny use of pedal, Kolesnikov softens the affect of the d minor Suite, producing a singular, salon intimacy. The tenor of the music changes drastically in the happy Gavotte, which could have easily influenced Bach’s idea of the “French suite.” The last movement, a somber Chaconne—a designation virtually interchangeable with Passacaglia—assumes the shape of a labyrinthine rondeau, interspersed with grand couplets, which repeat motifs in different keys. The form becomes a conflict between tension and resolution, anguish and repose, rife with trills and rhetorical signifiers of emotional states.

The Suite in g minor, as we might expect, possesses a powerful affect, highly personal and introspective. The opening Allemande, rife with pregnant pauses and antiphonal-voiced registers, sets us in a disturbed universe. The Courante, appropriately, contains “running” figures, but they seem tentative, liquid and only vaguely optimistic. The Sarabande moves like drops of heavy water, rife with double notes rounded by trills. The Gigue in c minor has a surly will of its own, into which Kolesnikov injects appoggiaturas. Most remarkable, the concluding Passacaille exploits major and minor tonalities, advancing by passages in parallel and contrary motion. The sonic image might remind some of the Chacony by Henry Purcell.

Between the Suite in g minor and the Suite in A Major, Kolesnikov performs the Tombeau de Mr Blancrocher, a lament for a famed lutenist who died in 1652 by having fallen down a staircase. Occasionally, the descending line imitates the tragic venue. The upward scales may indicate the late master’s ascent to Heaven. Midway through this eight-minute tone-picture, the music expresses an agonized sweetness of recollection.  If the Suite in A has any distinguishing moments, consider its two succeeding Sarabandes, the second in A minor. The Courante preceding the two slow movements has a jaunty energy, easily suggestive of later Bach fluency in olden style. The concluding Gigue has a hearty thrust that thrives on syncopations and excursions in competing registers.

Kolesnikov ends with a real anomaly in French music: the Pavane in f-sharp minor, a rare sojourn into a key associated with a “goat-song,” the etymological root of “tragedy.” The key alone appears in some lute music, but not in French keyboard works. The work divides into three sections and exploits four-part harmony. In the second half of the piece, the intervals often augment to border on modal harmony. Likely, this broad piece will feature on some radio programs as their “selection of the day” for its rarified sensibility.

—Gary Lemco

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