Saturday, May 6, 2017

Centaur Records Releases its Second Volume of François Couperin’s Keyboard Works

Yesterday Centaur Records released the second volume in harpsichordist Mark Kroll’s current project to record the complete keyboard works of François Couperin. By the time this project has reached its twelfth release, Kroll should have recorded all 27 of the ordres (suites) that Couperin had written for his four Pièces de clavecin volumes, which were published in Paris between 1713 and 1730. As had been noted at the time of the first release, Kroll is planning to give special attention “to the selection of appropriate historical harpsichords.”

Nevertheless, the harpsichord for the second volume is identical to that for the first, a 1785 instrument made by Jacques Germain currently kept in The National Music Museum located in Vermillion, South Dakota. This instrument was restored by John Koster, Professor Emeritus at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion. (No, this is not a P. D. Q. Bach joke.) Indeed, the first recordings for this new release were made at the same time as the final recordings for the first volume.

Once again, the recording consists of three of the ordres, the 8th (in B minor), the 17th (in E minor), and the 23rd (almost entirely in F major). The 17th and 23rd ordres consist almost entirely of character pieces with descriptive titles, but both are notably shorter than any the three ordres in the first release. The titles are all in French, but Kroll again provides the necessary explanations in the accompanying booklet.

The B minor ordre, on the other hand, is longer than any of the ordres in the first release; and the titles of almost all of the movements are those of dance forms. Thus, if Couperin chose the label ordre to distinguish his compositions from the suites being composed by his contemporaries, the B minor can definitely hold its own as one of those suites. Indeed, it boasts the longest single movement that Kroll has thus far recorded, the Passacaille that is the penultimate movement. I have to confess to a strong personal connection here, because that movement was my first real contact with Couperin’s music, having encountered it through a performance by Robert Veyron-Lacroix released on a Musical Heritage Society recording.

There is also a curious peculiarity in the final movement of this suite, which is not a dance form. As Kroll’s notes observe, “La Morinéte” is named after Couperin’s fellow composer Jean Baptiste Morin. It concludes with a satisfying low B in the left hand that accompanies a descending triad in the right. However, the triad descends only to the D, which leaves the listener feeling a bit up in the air.

One wonders whether or not Couperin may have been tweaking Morin with a bit of wit, but Kroll says nothing about this. He also does not mention that, in the 1888 publication edited by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander, there is a figured bass sharp above that low B, suggesting that the D should be bumped up a half step for the Picardy third effect of a major-key conclusion. Since Kroll does not name his own source material, it is unclear what he thinks about this conflict between left hand and right.

However, beyond picking any nits, the experience of listening to this album is as enjoyable as was the experience of its predecessor. The amount of time occupied by a single CD seems to be just about right for taking in an assortment of Couperin’s creative efforts. This is not to diminish the significance of having the full scope of those efforts once the project has concluded. It is simply an observation that this is not music that lends itself to “binge listening,” nor should it be!

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