Louise Couperin: Complete Harpsichord Works

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COMPOSERS: Louise Couperin
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Complete Harpsichord Works
PERFORMER: Richard Egarr (harpsichord)


Harpsichordist, director and, judging from his liner notes, cheese gourmand, Richard Egarr makes a fervent advocate for Louis Couperin, whom he believes to be ‘the greatest composer for the harpsichord of all time’. In many respects, Louis exemplifies early French Baroque style, with his graceful, dance-inspired rhythms, lute-like figurations and lacy embellishments, but he stands out from the crowd in the complexity of his counterpoint, his lush harmonic language and tart dissonances. There’s a profoundly melancholy air to his elegiac Sarabandes and statuesque Chaconnes, but perhaps his most thought-provoking works are the unmeasured Préludes: notated without rhythm or bar lines, they’re musical pre-echoes of Proust, with flowing syntax, undulating phrases and stream-of-consciousness introspection. Here, the roles of composer and performer merge, and Egarr’s realisations of these suggestive sketches combine improvisatory flair with a controlled awareness of their underlying architecture.

This is a formidable project, filling four CDs with 140 pieces arranged into 21 suites. Egarr, immersed in this repertoire for years, rises to the challenge with playing that is by turns pliant, poetic and balletic. He has chosen two contrasted instruments, copies by Joel Katzman of a 1638 Ruckers – its sound noble, resonant – and of a mid 17th-century Parisian instrument, with a plangent, reedy timbre. Both use a genuine quill plectrum, which produces a silky, singing tone. The recording is detailed and subtly reverberant.


Egarr’s chief competitor is Davitt Moroney, whose ground-breaking recording of the complete Pièces on three historic French instruments was released in 1984. Moroney’s are articulate, acutely intelligent performances, though the recorded sound is somewhat hard-edged. For a partial selection, including some of Couperin’s finest movements, consider Christoph Rousset’s recent two-disc collection on Aparté, reviewed here in October 2010. But for the whole shebang, Egarr’s your man. Kate Bolton