Schwarz & Buckley’s Rousing Couperin

Couperin from cover

FRANÇOIS COUPERIN: MUSIC FOR TWO HARPSICHORDS, VOLUME 2 / Concerts Royaux, Quatrième Concert; Les Nations, Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Pièces de Clavecin, Second Livre, Neuvième Ordre: I. Allemande à deux clavecins; Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre: Musete de Choisi/Musete de Taverni; Les Nations, Troisième Ordre: L’Impériale / Emer Buckley, Jochewed Schwarz, harpsichordists / Toccata Classics TOCC 0258

Here we have an excellent example of true “historically-informed” performance, taking into accounts the wishes of the composer as against the plain scoring. When François Couperin published his Concerts Royaux in 1722 and Les Nations in 1726, he used what we now call “open scoring,” meaning that any instruments could play it, but stated in the preface to the latter that he preferred to play them on two harpsichords. Unfortunately, his preference had to wait until the issue of these two CDs (this is Vol. 2) on Toccata Classics to become reality except for the Pièces de Clavecins.

To quote Couperin himself: “I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one. It is true that this requires two copies of the score instead of one, and also two harpsichords. But I find that it is often easier to assemble these two instruments than four working musicians. Two spinets in unison will do just as well (although of slighter effect). The only thing to which attention must be paid is the length of the notes because of the ornaments which must fill them out; bowed instruments sustain the sound whereas the harpsichord cannot do so; therefore the cadences or tremblemens and other embellishments must be very long; and if this is the case the performance will appear no less agreeable, especially as the harpsichord has a brilliance and clarity scarcely found in other instruments.” So why have they never been recorded this way until now?

Probably because of that very problem that Couperin brought up, that the harpsichord cannot sustain long notes like string or wind instruments. Thus Schwarz and Buckley had to work very hard to create the illusion of sustained tones, and to that end they have used harpsichords with large frames and resounding reverb when the strings are plucked. But wait a minute! Isn’t this similar to the large Pleyel harpsichord that Wanda Landowska used to play Couperin’s Les folies Françaises, ou les Dominos, Book 3 and Les fastes de la Grande et Ancienne ménestrandise back in the 1950s? And wasn’t she excoriated for defiling his music with such sounds? Why yes, I do believe that’s all true. Yet as other harpsichordists such as Zuzana Růžičková, Anna Paradiso and Elizabeth Farr have proven, large-frame harpsichords with resounding timbres certainly did exist in the 18th century, particularly in France, so a lot of that criticism goes out the window.

For this recording, Schwarz and Buckley used double-manual harpsichords “in the eighteenth-century French tradition [emphasis mine],” with two 8-foot registers, one Early Keyboard Instruments4-foot, and a “jeu de luth.” And what exactly is a “jeu de luth”? For non-harpsichord aficionados, this means a buff stop on the instrument that partially dampens the sound, i.e., provides some dynamics control on an instrument known for supposedly not having any. Because this dampening of the plucked strings was said to resemble a lute, they called it a “jeu de luth” or “liuto.” This is achieved by having the instrument pluck one of the unison registers close to the nut. But there’s more to it that that! The New Grove Early Keyboard Instruments (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989) insists that such instruments were often equipped with GUT strings, like a violin or da gamba—again, particularly in France (Michel de Hodes made one) but also in Italy (Adriano Banchieri owned one that he called an “arpittarone”). So much for the modern-day fiction that all early music should be played on punk-sounding single-manual harpsichords that sound like rattling tin foil.

But of course, the medium would be of little importance if the content of these works was in any way superficial or uninteresting. As a comparison with this recording, I listened to Les Nations as performed by the Juilliard Baroque ensemble, one of those early-music groups that use no vibrato and thus sound tight and unpleasant. They do, however, sound lively, and this goes some way towards mitigating the revolting sound of their instruments. I then listened to the same music played by the Alarius Ensemble of Brussels, which takes a compromise position towards string technique, using straight tone much of the time but uising some vibrato on sustained notes. This was much, much better to listen to, if not ideal. Couperin’s music is both lively and rhythmically varied; he wasn’t nearly as adventurous harmonically as his contemporaries Buxtehude or J.S. Bach, nor did he indulge in the sort of “stutter-rhythm” that was a hallmark of much of Buxtehude’s music. It was very much French salon style of its day, elegant and strict in form but also enjoyable to hear when played well.

After hearing it played by winds and strings, the two-harpsichord reduction sounds a bit bare in texture at first, but the richness of the instruments on which they play it and the obvious love and enthusiasm they bring to the music compensates for much of that. Schwarz and Buckley’s tempos are much closer to those of the Juilliard Baroque than the very speedy ones of the Alarius Ensemble, but the phrasing, articulation and rhythmic bounce of the music remain. One thing I found interesting was that, in the fastest passages, they employ a bit of rubato to allow the listener to hear all the notes clearly articulated rather than in a torrent of sound. Oddly enough, this works very well because of the slower interludes that Couperin wrote into his music. By playing it this way, they manage to make the music sound all of a piece rather than as a stop-go-stop-go sort of roller coaster ride. The effect is subtle, but the attentive listener will surely appreciate the care with which they approached these scores. Indeed, if anything I find their style more pleasing and more inherently “musical” in the best sense of the word than either of the group performances I listened to (though I would surely take Alarius over Juilliard any day). Note, for instance, the wonderful syncopated swagger of the “Allemande” in the first “ordre” of Les Nations, an effect that neither chamber group either achieved or strove for.

This meticulous care for detail, combined with their obvious love of the music, continues throughout the set. I was utterly charmed by their approach while at the same time aware of the infinitesimal little details they added to the score to make it “come alive”: as Toscanini used to say, “When the notes leap off the page and into your brain.” These are no archaic, academic exercises for them, but living music with a living message. And yes, once in a while, as at the 40-second mark of the first ordre’s second “Courante,” they add just a touch, just a dab of Buxtehude’s irregular rhythm to make the listener take notice. What consummate musicianship! I can only imagine how many hours it took them to work out these details, and then how many more it must have taken to phrase it in such a way that it sounded natural and flowing. And the richness of these two 8-foot harpsichords is caught perfectly by th microphones, with just a bit of air around them to alleviate the immediacy of sound.

Moreover, this same approach and enthusiasm are found in every track of this amazing album. By their imaginative use of rhythm and color (using the damper), Schwarz and Buckley make every note and phrase here a treat for the ear. One marvelous example is the “Muséte de Choisi/Muséte de Taverni” from the Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre which, by their superb use of pedaling, they make sound completely sustained in tone from first note to last. And check out their imaginative use of the damper pedal in the “Sarabande – Tendrement” of Troisième Ordre of Les Nations. It is difficult, then, for me to be completely objective about this recording because I responded so strongly to it emotionally, but I think you will, too. If you enjoy Couperin’s music and particultly the pieces on this disc, I strongly recommend your acquiring it. You won’t be disappointed!!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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