Rannou’s Landmark Couperin Set Reissued

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COUPERIN: PIÈCES POUR CLAVECIN / COUPERIN: L’art de toucher le clavecin: Préludes Nos. 1-8. Livre de Clavecin, excerpts from No. 1, 3éme ordre; No. 2, 6ème ordre/ 7éme; No. 3, 13éme ordre/15éme/17éme/18éme/19éme; No. 4, 21éme ordre/23éme/25éme /27éme / Blandine Rannou, hpd / Alpha 494

This 2-CD set is a less fancy reissue of Blandine Rannou’s 2003 recordings of a fairly hefty sampling of François Couperin’s dance suites and music. When it first came out, she was young, pretty and not at all well known on this side of the Atlantic. Sixteen years later, she is a frequent visitor at early music festivals around the world, has put on a little weight and now looks much more mature. But of course that is the business of the marketing people, who absolutely love to sell female classical artists in poses as close to cheesecake as they will permit, and not to those of us for whom the music and its performance always comes first.

Rannou

Rannou in 2004 (left) and 2016

Rannou’s Couperin performances were not noted for their energy, although she did play the fast pieces with some zest, so much as for their elegance, and elegance is what Couperin was all about. His music will never leave you wanting to hear more, as in the case of Buxtehude, J.S. Bach or even Handel, but it was atmospheric in a way that such early Baroque music seldom was. He was a favorite composer of both Nadia Boulanger and one of Boulanger’s star pupils, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and even American harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe recorded some of his works.

cover 2This album was originally released on Zig Zag Territories 040401 in 2004 with a different cover. I don’t own the original discs so I can’t tell you if the liner notes were different or longer than the ones in this reissue, which consist of a mere three-page assessment of the composer and his works by the performer, but these are sufficient. Rannou tells us all we need to really know about Couperin and his music, at least verbally:

He takes pains to insist on the importance of the indications of character that he marks at the beginning of virtually all the pieces. By means of these musical “stage directions,” Couperin transports us, in quite literally poetic fashion, to distinctive worlds: languissamment, douloureusement, fièrement sans lenteur, grotesquement, vivement et dans un goût burlesque. He is perhaps never so touching as when presenting sad and sombre moods. One might surmise that the light pieces, sophisticated or pastoral, the very pieces often taken to define the composer, are only there the better to send us back into darkness, to the sound of Leçons de Ténèbres, commas framing the key word in the sentence.

Since it might be of interest for the reader to know all the pieces included in this set, in the order played, I’ve listed them below along with their timings.

1.  L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 4        1:48
2.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 23ème ordre; l’Audacieuse       3:29
3.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 23ème ordre: l’Arlequine          1:27
4.      “       les Satires Chèvre-pieds   4:37
5.  Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre: le Turbulent        1:41
6.  Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre: l’Atendrissante   4:25
7.      “      Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins          2:58
8.  L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 7 2:46
9.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 25ème ordre: La Visionnaire    3:28
10. Livre de Clavecin No. 2, 6ème ordre: La Bersan 2:52
11.      “     les Baricades Mistérieuses 2:24
12. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 3 1:11
13. Livre de Clavecin No. 2, 7ème ordre: La Chazé  4:05
14.      “     Les Amusemens    4:35
15.      “     La Ménetou           3:38
16. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 1 1:34
17. Livre de Clavecin No. 1, 3ème ordre: La Ténébreuses – Allemande       4:35
18.      “     Les Regrets           4:25
19.      “     La Lugubre – Sarabande   2:59
20.      “     La Favorite – Chaconne à deux tems        4:27
21. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 25ème ordre: Les Ombres Errantes      4:43
22. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 8 1:29
23. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 21ème ordre: La Reine de Coeurs        3:46
24.      “     La Bondissante     1:48
25.      “     La Couperin          4:03
26. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 17ème ordre: La superbe ou la Forqueray        4:56
27. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 6 2:16
28. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 27ème ordre: L’exquise – Allemande  4:46
29.      “     Les Chinois           2:59
30.      “     Saillie         2:55
31. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 13ème ordre: Les Folies Françoises ou les
Dominos    8:53
32. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 2 1:30
33. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 19ème ordre: Les Calotins et les Calotines      2:55
34.      “     L’artiste     3:19
35.      “     Les Culbutes jxcxbxnxs    2:59
36.      “     La Muse – Plantine           3:27
37. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 5 2:54
38. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 15ème ordre: La Régente ou la Minerve          5:04
39. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 24ème ordre: L’Amphibie        5:50

Atypical of the era in which he worked, Couperin was among the very first, if not the first, composer to write out all the ornaments in the music that he wanted played. This is even different from Bach, who sometimes left a certain amount of improvising up to the performer.

One of the more interesting things about this recording, when you listen to it (especially through headphones), is that although Rannou made pauses between the works she seems to have played all of them in order without a break. I say this because the sound of the reverberation never completely dies away after any specific number. It almost sounds as if the recording company just started the tape and off she went, recording all 39 pieces in order with no second takes. If this is so, that in itself was a heck of an achievement. To have all that music under your fingers to play perfectly for the microphone is, to me, simply astonishing.

I must also point out that although Rannou may not be the most exciting performer of this music, she is never dull, and in fact most of the fast pieces (i.e., Le Turbulent from Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre, to cite but one example among many) are quite lively indeed. She is just a little more sedate in those slow numbers in order to present the composer’s darker side as she mentions in the notes. And I particularly liked the way her harpsichord was recorded: very forward, with minimal studio resonance around it, so that it almost sounds as if she were playing in your living room (for those of you who, like me, still listen to music through speakers). With all that being said, however, I still find that Couperin works best in small doses. One CD at a time, or perhaps even half a CD at a time, is enough to saturate your mind with the imprint of his aesthetic without overloading one. Remember that the composer never expected that someone would sit down at the keyboard and play two hours and eleven minutes’ worth of his music at one sitting. I’m not sure that he himself would have liked to be so oversaturated by it, yet Rannou programmed the works in a good order and provided effective contrasts between his jolly, sedate and somber pieces for these CDs.

One thing you pick up from this collection is that Rannou obviously loves what she does, and she conveys that love to the listener. If Couperin is a composer you relate to, these performances will satisfy you and then some.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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