A little over a week ago, Centaur Records released the first volume in a projected cycle of the complete keyboard works of François Couperin. When completed the cycle is expected to comprise twelve releases. This should account for the four volumes of Pièces de clavecin that Couperin published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, respectively, which collectively offer up 27 ordres (suites). The usual source for this music is the publication by Augener issued in 1888 and based on editing by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander. This publication also included an allemande and eight preludes taken from a treatise Couperin published entitled L’art de toucher le clavecin, an instructional manual of keyboard technique.
The harpsichordist for this project is Mark Kroll; and, according to the advance material provided by Centaur (reproduced on the Amazon.com Web page for this first volume), he plans to give special attention “to the selection of appropriate historical harpsichords.” Presumably this is why he is not preparing the releases in the numerical order of the ordres. Instead, on the first recording he plays a 1785 instrument made by Jacques Germain and performs the fourth (in F major), sixth (in B-flat major), and eighteenth (which begins in F minor and shifts to F major) ordres. Couperin served at the court of Louis XIV, where he was expected both to compose and to publish new music. (He also served as organist at Saint Gervais at the same time.) After the death of Louis XIV, Louis XV escalated him to the position of ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, described by the author of Couperin’s Wikipedia page as “one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician.”
Presumably, Couperin’s primary function was to entertain, rather than instruct. This would explain why almost all of the pieces he composed served as “character pieces” with descriptive titles, rather than being based on the dance forms one encounters in suites of that period. They may thus be viewed as eighteenth-century forebears of what would be called “program music” in the nineteenth century, pursuing a technique that one can also find in suites that Georg Philipp Telemann composed, particularly after becoming a “free agent” in the city of Hamburg. The titles of Couperin’s pieces are given only in French in the track listing on the back cover; but Kroll has provided piece-by-piece explanations for the accompanying booklet.
All of the selections on this first release are delightfully entertaining. However, Couperin’s judgement in determining the size of any individual ordre seems to indicate that he knew when enough was enough, at least for his royal patrons. Most likely Couperin never expected that one would listen of three of these ordres played back-to-back in a single sitting. Those who create personal playlists from downloads will probably want to bear this in mind.
The only real question that arises is this matter of playing “appropriate historical harpsichords.” I like to think that I have some level of advantage because the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has an excellent Historical Performance Department, which has accumulated an impressive collection of harpsichords from different countries. I have attended several recitals by Corey Jamason, co-Director of this department, at which he has taken the time to discuss specific features of the instrument he has selected for his performance. However, the main thing I have learned from my own listening experiences is I do not know the half of what I should when it comes to recognizing a good match between an instrument and the music being played on it.
What I can say, however, is that Couperin’s approaches to “program music” often involve a generous amount of complexity or just as much attention to a slow pace that allows for the sonorous effects of resonance. From that point of view, Kroll has shown excellent judgement in choosing an instrument that allows for all of the clarity that the notated “text” requires. Once that clarity is established, the performer can then worry about how to make it expressive; and, if one is to fall back on the semantic implications of Couperin’s titles, then attentive listeners will probably agree that Kroll’s expressiveness is right on the mark. This should be sufficient to raise curiosity about what will be offered on his second release.