Lively Performances of Couperin’s “Les Concerts Royaux”

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COUPERIN: Les Concerts Royaux, Nos. 1-4 / I Fiori Musicali: Maria Giovanna Fiorentino, voice fl/sop recorder; Paolo Tognon, bsn; Rosita Ippolito, vla da gamba; Maria Luisa Baldassari, hpd / Urania LDV14031

I so seldom take a chance on early music recordings nowadays because of all this ahistorical “straight tone” nonsense, not to mention clipped, un-legato phrasing and emotional neutering of the music, that when I first started listening to this recording I was taken aback. This put me in mind of the old, marvelous recording of Couperin’s Le Parnasse ou l’Apotheose de Corelli by flautist Claude Monteux, oboist Harry Schulman, cellist Bernard Greenhouse and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe. In short, it’s lively, energetic and interesting!

But look at the names of the musicians: they’re all Italians. And why does that matter? For two reasons. First, Italian musicians understand the traditions of early music better than the Germans, French or Brits because even such composers as Buxtehude, Couperin and Bach based their styles on Italian models. And secondly, even more importantly, Italian musicians know that these pieces were based on dances, which they understand better than some academics sitting around in conservatories, pulling their chins and arguing as to just how thin, nasty and ugly early music needs to sound before it can be considered “authentic.”

The result is a cornucopia of sounds that bring Couperin to rich, vibrant life. I was reminded more than a little bit of the superb recordings (two volumes) of Couperin’s Les Nations made by harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley, which I gave a rave review to on this blog. This music was designed to delight audiences, not depress them or make them worry about how much straight tone is being used, and delight it does. Even Paolo Tognon’s bassoon bounces and swirls around the top line of the music, superbly played by Maria Fiorentino, like a child so excited by what he hears that he wants to join in the fun.

As for the music itself, it is typical of the French Baroque of the time. I make no claim that Couperin was a transcendent genius like Buxtehude or J.S. Bach, but he was more that just a craftsman. He knew how to develop his themes in a compact manner and, more importantly, how to contrast different sections within each suite or “Concert” for maximum effect. And by golly, even the slow movements here, such as the Preludes of each Concert, have a life and lift that takes them out of the dry, dusty Halls of Academe and make them living music once again. As in the case of the Monteux recording referenced above, the harpsichord part is somewhat subjugated to the whole. It does not dominate as in the case of Bach’s suites. This, too, was the French style of the time, although happily, Maria Luisa Baldassari’s instrument is recorded more clearly that Sylvia Marlowe was in the early 1950s.

Of the four musicians, only viola da gambist Rosita Ippolito adheres to the Religion of Straight Tone, and that is a shame, particularly in the “Air tendre” of Concert No. 2 where her instrument could have used a bit of light vibrato on those sustained notes. But at least the others bounce the rhythm so well that you don’t feel that the music drags at all. Indeed, I especially like the way they occasionally “teased” notes just a hair longer than written, as in the “Echos” of Concert No. 2, to create the illusion of movement. In Concert No. 3, Fiorentino switches from flute to recorder, which gives the music a somewhat deeper and “woodier” sound with no loss of animation. Of course these suites, like those of Les Nations,don’t have any set instrumentation, so any combination of instruments will do. Here, harpsichordist Baldassari gets to shine in a solo performance of the Sarabande in Concerto No. 4.

This is a really lively recording of some of Couperin’s better music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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