Presumed portrait of François Couperin (artist unknown), used on the covers of the Dover Publications reprint volumes of his keyboard music (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
This past August the Erato label released a ten-CD box set of the Complete Works for Harpsichord of François Couperin. All of this music is played at the harpsichord by Olivier Baumont, who also provided a background essay for the accompanying booklet, translated from the original French into English by Stewart Spencer. Regular readers know that I have been following a similar project by harpsichordist Mark Kroll, which is being released in single-CD installments by Centaur Records. Those who have been following my articles know that, to date, only five CDs have been released (with the fifth appearing before the fourth), suggesting that Kroll is about halfway through to completion of his efforts.
The bulk of Couperin’s work consists of four volumes entitled Pièces de clavecin that collectively contain 27 ordres (suites). Baumont accounts for all of these suites in numerical order, along with the eight preludes and one allemande included as examples in Couperin’s treatise L’Art de toucher le clavecin (the art of playing the keyboard) and a siciliano that predates the publication of the first volume. In following Kroll’s work, I have cited his giving attention to selecting specific instruments for each of the ordres he records. Baumont has done the same, and he uses his booklet notes to survey the instruments he has selected without dwelling excessively on the logic behind his selections.
The ten CDs in this box set thus amount to an informed account of over 240 pieces intended to be played at the harpsichord. In terms of size, this is somewhat modest when compared with Couperin’s contemporaries. I have two “complete works” collections of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. One of them allocates 22 CDs to the keyboard music that is not for organ, and the other has 23 CDs. However, even that achievement is dwarfed by Scott Ross’ 34-CD box set of the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. On the other hand Couperin’s motives probably differed from those of Bach and Scarlatti, both of whom may well have produced much (if not all) of their work for pedagogical purposes. Couperin was more likely motivated by the need to keep King Louis XIV entertained!
My “personal history” with Couperin goes all the way back to childhood, where my first impressions were slightly distorted. My father had purchased an album of music for recorder and harpsichord. This included an arrangement of “Le rossignol-en-amour” (the nightingale in love) from the fourteenth ordre with the melody line given to the recorder (for which it was well suited). I had to wait until my graduate student days, however, before I heard any one these pieces played on harpsichord, thanks to a Musical Heritage Society album of performances by Robert Veyron-Lacroix.
By the time I was ready to start exploring this music for myself, Dover Publications had come out with their reprint of all of Couperin’s keyboard works (except for that early siciliano) edited by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander. As might be expected, twentieth-century scholarship resulted in far more authoritative editions. Here, again, Baumont uses his notes for the booklet to inform the listener of his sources, the primary one being Heugel’s publication of the edition prepared by Kenneth Gilbert.
Nuts and bolts aside, what sorts of listening experiences does Baumont offer? Clearly, as is the case with both Bach and Scarlatti, this is not music for “marathon” listening. Indeed, I would guess that Louis XIV would not have had the patience to listen to a beginning-to-end account of all of the compositions in a single ordre. (I am reminded of Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in his biography of Bach, quoting Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling saying, “Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations,” suggesting that BWV 988 may never have been played beginning-to-end in Bach’s lifetime!) Thus, if ever there were a collection that might benefit from the “shuffle” feature, this would be it!
For me, however, what matters most is the clarity that Baumont brings to every one of the pieces played in this collection. Indeed, listening to his performances has motivated me to haul out my Brahms-Chrysander volumes and try to get some of those pieces under my own hands. Where my own personal thoughts are concerned, I find that one of the major challenges in working through any of these pieces concerns the interpretation of the embellishment signs. This is where Baumont’s clarity matters the most to me. When both hands are required to embellish, it is not always clear how their respective embellishments should interleave; and, now that I have Baumont available to me as a “reference resource” for any individual piece I am thinking about playing, I expect that I shall be consulting him regularly.