François Couperin: Lumière et Ombre

François Couperin: Lumière et Ombre
Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset
Barbican/Milton Court. 14 January 2018

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We are used to hearing French Baroque music in the grand style of the likes of Lully and Rameau, but the more delicate and sensitive music of François Couperin (referred to as le Grand to differentiate him from the rest of his extended musical family) is often overlooked. 2018 is the 350th anniversary of his birth, so is a good time to reassess his music. These two concerts in Milton Court, together with a panel discussion, explored some of his chamber and harpsichord music, concluding with his three Leçons de ténèbres. The two concerts were titled Lumière and Ombre, each containing solo harpsichord, vocal and instrumental music.

The first concert, Lumière (2pm), opened with the Cinquième concert from Les goûts-réunis, with some expressively delicate violin playing from Gilone Gaubert-Jacques (albeit not always spot on in terms of intonation) and gamba player Kaori Uemura-Terakado emphasising the chamber context of the music. As suggested by the title of the collection, Couperin’s music combines elements of the French and Italian style. The concluding Musette dans le goûts de carillon was particularly attractive. There is very little vocal music surviving by Couperin, but we heard three examples (Trois Airs sérieux), sung by soprano Eugénie Warnier, her focused tone projected the melodic line well, although her vibrato did rather interfere with the delicate ornaments, so vital to French music of this period. Christophe Rousset then played the Septième ordre from the Piéces de claveçin, an affectionate tribute to one of Couperin’s students, Françoise-Charlotte de Senneterre Ménétou, (pictured) the different movements reflecting different aspects of her life.

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In this, and in other solo pieces, Rousset demonstrated the distinctive style of harpsichord playing that Couperin developed, the complex overlapping of voices creating a rich sonority. The first of the two concerts concluded with the Troisième concert royal, the contrasts between the movements well articulation.

A panel discussion followed, led by Andrew McGregor, with Berta Joncus and Christophe Rousset discussing the music of Couperin, aided by some very helpful slides from Berta Joncus.

The evening concert, Ombre, opened with an opportunity for Kaori Uemura-Terakado to step out of her largely continuo-playing role as the soloist in the Première Suite of the Pièces de Viole. Rousset then played two more extracts from the Pièces de clavecin – ‘Les Idées heureuses’ and ‘Les Ombres errantes’ further demonstrating the distinctive style brisé where the focus is on the harmonic progression with any sense of melodic development is lost is the overall sound. The Couperin day finished with a performance of his Trois Leçons de ténèbres, the only remaining part of what was clearly intended to be a triple set of pieces.  Eugénie Warnier was joined by Céline Scheen who sang the first Leçonsthe inflexions in her voice during the incipits at the start of each section introducing a sense of the operatic singing style. There were times when her voice dropped so much in volume, as she phased in and out of notes, as to be nearly inaudible. Eugénie Warnier’s vibrato was far less noticeable in the 2nd and 3rd Leçons. 

In this, and on many other occasions, the continuo playing of Christophe Rousset (here using organ and harpsichord) was too prominent for my taste and for the nature of the music. On the organ, he frequently added an additional melodic line above the voice of the soprano, thereby drawing attention away from the singer and, more importantly, the text. His harpsichord continuo playing was often too loud for the singers, as it had also been during the earlier gamba Suite.

The structure of the Trois Leçons was curious and seemed at odds with the score. Each section starts with an incipit, a Hebrew word sung to a long melismatic vocal line. But in this performance, that opening incipit of the following verse was often sung at the end of the previous one. A rather erratic timing of extinguishing candles added to the confusion, some snuffed out before the incipit, some after, in a seemingly random order. A mistimed blackout just before the final section was unfortunate. But however it was done, it was, in any case, superfluous, as the extinguishing of candles usually only applied on the third set of three Leçons which took place on Holy Saturday, leaving churches in darkness under Easter morning. The published programme for the three events can be read here.

Couperin is probably best known to organists for his 1690 Pièces d’orgue published early in his career. Although a brief mention was made of his activities as organist at Saint-Gervais and Versaille, there was no other discussion on the importance of his organ music. Which gives me a chance to mention that I will be playing extracts from Couperin’s Messe pour les Couvents alongside music for the Mass by a more recent French composer, Charles Tournemire, at Christ’s Chapel of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich on Sunday 8 July at 7.45. See organrecitals.com/abw.

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