Pianist Alexandre Tharaud has organized (rec. July 2006) what he considers the most “pianistic” (on the Steinway D) of Francois Couperin’s pieces, selected from several orders of his collected works for their emphasis “on play.” The most obvious is the light, nimble Le Tic-Toc-Choc, which is ironic and virtuosic–double notes in parallel hands– at once. Interspersed with bravura showpieces are Couperin’s stately and cultured character-pieces, among them a self-portrait entitled Le Couperin. Strong ornamental staccati for Les Calotines. Les Ombres Errantes conveys a sense of romantic tryst, erotic intrigue. Le Dodo ou L’Amour au berceau invites similar conceits of tender exchanges. As well as Tharaud plays the lulling suspensions from Les Baricades Misterieuses, none excels as had Igor Kipnis on the harpsichord in his amazing Epic label recording. Light feet dance in Les Tricateuses. In Le Carillon de Cithere, we hear references to a mythic land Debussy would visit; and we recall that Richard Strauss utilized this tinkling gem’s refined sensuality for his Dance Suite After Couperin. The same effervescence can be heard in Les Tours de passe-passe, easily a model for a gigue in a Bach partita. The play of God’s angels here on earth in Les Cherubims ou laminable Lazure might well be a pantheistic hymn en forme de gavotte.
The modern piano does wonders with Musette de Taverni for five hands, Tharaud having used over-dubbing to achieve a disarming, orchestral effect over a drone bass. An equally luminous effect derives from the layered voices in La Visionnaire, rather closely miked to capture Tharaud’s heavy breathing. Devotional meditation marks La Logiviere, to be played “majestically, without slowness.” Tharaud credits pianists like Robert Casadesus, Marcelle Meyer, Yvonne Lefebure, and Pierre Barbizet for their stylistic influence on his perceptions, but I would venture Glenn Gould is no less a model for this nice blend of piano and harpsichord sonorities. If Les Rozeaux suggests Rameau’s Gavotte and Doubles in A Minor, L’Atalante is pure Bach toccata, rife with colorful upward scales and energetic counterpoint.
The big work in all this is Couperin’s Passacaille from his 8th ordre, which exhibits, besides its strict form and lutenist tablature, a delicate tracery and intimate affect. One can hear why its special sound and virtuosity appealed to Johannes Brahms. Expansive in another mode entirely is Les Jumeles from the 12th ordre, an extended adagio of subtle colors. A special moment is Bruit de guerre, a martial piece for which a drum–played by Pablo Pico–accompanies Tharaud’s call to arms. The final piece, by the obscure Duphly, provides a musical transition from the harpsichord to the pianoforte, its last pages gently aglow with a spirit akin to Romantics like Mendelssohn and Schumann. Tharaud has invited us into Couperin’s world of singular beauties and held us in thrall. Add to the Best of the Year cart!
— Gary Lemco