Couperin: Pièces de clavecin (Books 1-4); works for two harpsichords (on bonus CD)

COMPOSERS: Couperin
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Pièces de clavecin (Books 1-4); works for two harpsichords (on bonus CD)
PERFORMER: Christophe Rousset (harpsichord), with William Christie on bonus CD
CATALOGUE NO: HMX 2901442/52(1988-96)
The keyboard works of François Couperin – the most famous of the 18th-century clavecinistes – have never enjoyed quite the same popular revival as those of Scarlatti and Bach. No doubt Couperin’s comparative neglect is due partly to the fact that his intricate ornamental lines transfer awkwardly to the piano; but it is also true that the surface naivety and understated virtuosity of many of his pieces belie their musical substance.

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Couperin’s crowning achievement is the four books of the Pièces de clavecin – over two hundred pieces, each with a descriptive title, grouped together according to key in suites, or ordres. Encapsulated within a single ordre is an entire opera in microcosm, or a scaled-down comédie with masked figures and dancers. In just a handful of pieces, Couperin can conjure up a bacchanal, a parade, or a pantomime in which Scaramouche and Harlequin whirl and leap around on stage. Elsewhere he allows us a more personal glimpse of his circle, through miniature portraits of the Versailles courtiers, his pupils, family and even himself; and he sets the scene in an idealised landscape populated by satyrs, amorous nightingales and rosy-cheeked milkmaids.

Having been disillusioned by the number of misguided performances of his music, Couperin left meticulous instructions regarding phrasing, articulation and ornamentation; but it is doubtful that even he would have found fault with Christophe Rousset’s astute readings. Playing a different harpsichord for each book, Rousset invariably produces a sound of crystalline clarity, with agile fingerwork, immaculate ornaments, and an almost clockwork rhythmic control. With his delicate, poised playing he breathes life into Couperin’s portraits of 18th-century femininity – among them princesses, muses, twins, nuns and his own daughter. Then in a trice, Rousset can turn the harpsichord into a jewelled music box, a carillon, a chiming clock, a sparkling bauble.

At times I could have wished for more variety in these interpretations: the buffoons, freaks and commedia characters could be more grotesquely eccentric; and certainly, Rousset could be more expansive when Couperin is magisterial, more profound in the composer’s darker expressions. But then, everything in Couperin is experienced at one remove: characters are masked, in costume, on stage; or painted as miniature profiles or silhouettes. Even the natural world is tamed and idealised. So Rousset’s controlled and occasionally detached interpretations are actually very apt for Couperin’s refined and enigmatic art.

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In addition to the complete Pièces, Rousset includes the Concerts royaux (more frequently played by chamber ensembles), and he is joined by William Christie in the works for two harpsichords. These include the famous ‘Apotheoses’ of Lully and Corelli, performed with great musical rapport and understanding. And to soften the blow of having to buy a dozen discs in one go, this last one is thrown in as a bonus. Kate Bolton