These four Suites, entitled La Françoise, L’Espagnole, L’Impériale and La Piémontoise, are the last of François Couperin’s collections uniting the musical styles of his native France with other countries, particularly Italy. The harmonic drive and rhythmic impetus of Corelli’s trio sonatas and concertos delighted the French, compared with the ‘glacial and conservative’ character (as described in Robert Mealy’s CD liner-notes) of their own tradition. Italian music, too, was much less heavily festooned with ornaments.
However, Couperin remains more French than international. The opening ‘Sonade’ of L’Impériale is the most overtly Italian movement of all, its final lively ‘vivement’ completely bare of ornaments. But such uncluttered lines are rare, and the dances which follow are almost uncompromisingly French.
Couperin wrote for two violins and bass with continuo – a clear Corellian influence. Offering all four Suites, nearly two hours of music, Juilliard Baroque wisely vary the instrumentation, and without compromising period practice – flute, oboe, bassoon were all familiar and available in the French court. But frequent changes during short semi-movements rather break up the continuity: it happens eight times in the opening Sonade for example. The recording balance tends to favour the oboe, which is often prominent as a lower part or dominant on top. A particularly entrancing timbre is the nasal, woody sound of the Baroque guitar as a strumming continuo.
All eight players are totally absorbed in the style. Their often dense ornamentation never sounds calculated or contrived; their rhythmic flow in slower movements has a captivating insouciance, relaxed, gently fluid. This is French playing that would be hard to better.