LOUIS COUPERIN: Pieces de Clavecin – Richard Egarr – HM (4)

by | Sep 13, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

LOUIS COUPERIN: Pieces de Clavecin (The Complete Harpsichord Works) – Richard Egarr, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi HMU 907511.14 (4 CDs), 5 hrs. 14 min. total *****:
Richard Egarr has released 20 recordings for Harmonia mundi, including his acclaimed performances of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, as well as Book 1 and Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Klavier. This time he brings us a much less-well-known collection of earlier music for keyboard—and not just a sampling but the composer’s entire harpsichord works.
Louis Couperin was the first historically important member of the large Couperin family, who unfortunately never had any of his music published during his short lifetime (he died in 1661 at age 35). He was important in the development of both the French Baroque organ and harpsichord schools.  He developed a special notation in his invention of the unmeasured prelude for harpsichord. They were written with whole notes only, arranged in groups and connected by graceful curves. About two-thirds of his harpsichord pieces follow dance movements such as courantes, sarabandes and gigues. He studied with the primary harpsichord composer of the time, Chambonnieres, but Couperin’s pieces are more complex. Froberger was also an influence on this works.
Some of these works were published in 1936, but others were discovered only recently. The four CDs contain 21 suites—with many in C Major, G Minor and A Minor. The final exhaustively ornamented suite is in B-flat Major. However, the organization into suites was done by Egarr, since the arrangement of the various pieces is left up to the performer. Louis Couperin’s favored devices are imitation, polyphony, striking harmonies and rhythms, and resonant suspension. Appreciation of this music requires very close listening to get thru the thicket of ornamental grace notes to the basic melodic and harmonic structures. The first disc of suites seems a bit simplistic, but things pick up as the series goes on, and the fourth CD is most impressive. Before and after the last two suites two stand-alone pieces of great beauty are heard: The 7 1/2-minute Pavanne in F-sharp minor and the closing Les Carillons de Paris.
The sonics, as with all of Egarr’s recordings, are exemplary. He used two types of harpsichords: a copy of a Parisian instrument from the early part of the 17th century and a copy of a Flemish instrument by Ruckers. Both use real quills to pluck the strings.  Most harpsichords (including my own) have been converted to a plastic called Delrin, which requires much less repair and adjustment, but Egarr finds quill more sensitive, flexible and musical. And he claims quill doesn’t require much more hassle to maintain (Hah!). At the time of its writing, such repertory could be played at a wide range of pitches—all much lower than today’s standard a’ = 440.  Egarr used a’ = 398.
—John Sunier

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