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François Couperin
28 Nov 2011

François Couperin by Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

Although François Couperin won his reputation as an esteemed composer at the ostentatious and vainglorious court of Versailles, under the patronage of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, his work is often surprisingly discreet and intimate.

François Couperin: Sonata from Premier Ordre: La Françoise ‘Les Nations’; Première Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Deuxième Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Suite from Premier Ordre: La Françoise ‘Les Nations’; Sonata from Premier Ordre: L’Espagnole ’Les Nations’; Troisième Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Suite from Premier Ordre: L’Espagnole ‘Les Nations’.

Dame Emma Kirkby, soprano; Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano. Florilegium. Ashley Solomon. director. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 24 November, 2011.

Above: François Couperin


These qualities were affectingly demonstrated during this wonderfully tender performance by Florilegum of secular instrumental and sacred vocal music, compositions which unite the best of contemporary French and Italian conventions.

Couperin was born in 1688 in Paris, the son of Charles Couperin, the organist St Gervais in Paris. On his father’s premature death, the organist position passed to Lalande, but François, an early musical genius, was already deputising for Lalande at the age of ten, and on his 18th birthday he officially inherited his father’s previous position. Lalande praised the young man’s innovative 1690 collection of Pièces d’orgue as “worthy of being given to the public” and helped to establish him as a Court organist in 1693. In 1700 Couperin acquired the younger D’Anglebert’s position as harpsichordist at Versailles.

He amassed a notable quantity of superlative harpsichord pieces, which began appearing in elegantly engraved editions in 1713, following other noteworthy collections by Rameau and Dandrieu; but, ever the individualist, Couperin chose to group his pièces into ordres rather than suites, and relied much less on dance movements than his contemporaries, preferring the freer and more evocative pièces de caractère.

In his publications of the early 1720s he offered a wide variety of ways in which the French and Italian styles might be united. As Richard Langham Smith’s eloquent, informative programme notes state, the works grouped under the title of Les Nations were “written in the style of Corelli”; the composer had been “charmed by the sonatas of Corelli, whose works I shall love as long as I shall live, just as I do the works of Monsieur de Lully”.

Les Nations is the title under which Couperin published a collection of four large-scale sonatas; Florilegum presented two – the earliest of the ordres composed for chamber consort – La Françoise and L’Espagnole. Director Ashley Solomon, fellow traverse flautist Andrew Crawford, and violinists Bojan Cici and Tuomo Suni were expressively supported by Emilia Benjamin’s viola da gamba, David Miller’s theorbo and the delectable harpsichord playing of Terence Charistan. The ensemble relished Couperin’s luscious timbres and colours, responding naturally to the considerable rhetoric of the small dance forms, exploiting contrast and delighting in the piquant expressive dissonances.

In the slower, more intricate movements, as in the ‘Sarabande’ of L’Espagnole, the meticulous attention to ornament and detail was impressive, although such details were never allowed to disrupt the graceful melodic line. String and woodwind articulation in the more energetic dances was bracingly crisp and fresh; repetitions were constantly re-invigorated. Rapid passage work in ‘La Gigue’ from La Françoise was sharply articulated. Despite the fact that these interpretations were clearly honed to perfection, there was a surprising sense of spontaneity, as if the reading was unfolding in real time.

Florilegum.pngFlorilegium [Photo by Amit Lennon]

The instrumentalists were joined by sopranos Dame Emma Kirkby and Elin Manahan Thomas in Couperin’s captivating Leçons de Ténèbres, extremely beautiful and genuinely spiritual music for ecclesiastical use. Couperin’s interest in the Italian style, as represented by Carissimi and Charpentier, influenced his sacred vocal music, particularly his motets, versets and leçons de ténèbres, and the result of this stylistic diffusion is enchantingly presented in the Leçons.

In the Tenebrae service, psalms are sung, interspersed with the text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. In Couperin’s setting we are aware of delicate and deliberate crafting: each of the responsaries is preceded by a huge musical ‘capital letter’ much like the way the first letter of a Hebrew psalm is set to a long melisma – as Langham Smith describes “a musical equivalent to an ornamented manuscript with elaborately gilded capital letters.”

The two soloists brought their own strengths to the delivery of the text. Thomas, alert and energised, using the voice to thrill and excite; Kirkby effortlessly shaped individual phrases into affecting larger units, creating heart-rending melodic shapes and inflecting the text with human sentiment. Soaring melodic arches and effortlessly gilded ornaments evoked cathedral realms. For Kirkby aficionados, vocal purity and beauty is taken for granted, but she also exhibited a real sense of the architectural splendour of these pieces.

Thomas’s pronunciation of the Latin text was idiomatically French in inflection, as it would have been performed at the time. Her ornamentation was superb; she produced a shimmering beauty which invigorated the sacred text with exotic nuance. In the third lesson, the intertwined soaring voices evoked aspiring gothic cathedral arches. The accompaniment was flexible and alert, sensitive to nuance and creating a real sense of intimacy. The repeated refrain, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominium Deum tuum”, (Jerusalem, return thee to the Lord, thy God) both united the various lessons, and provided variety and gradation.

These are pieces of heavenly exquisiteness, designed to inspire piety through their sheer beauty. Whatever one’s religious allegiances and affiliations, this recital inspired ‘devotion’ through the performers’ absolute commitment to magnificent splendour and nuanced, expressive inflection, perfectly assimilating the sacred and the secular.

Claire Seymour

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