CD Number: Hyperion CDA67480
François Couperin (1668-1733) composed 226 small pieces for keyboard that he grouped into twenty-seven ordres (or suites) gathered into four books he called Pièces de Clavecin. This second volume of Angela Hewitt's projected three-disc survey of selections from the Pièces samples works from Book Four, which he wrote at the end of his life when his health was failing.
For lovers of Bach's stylistic rigor and musical abstraction, Couperin's music can seem somewhat shallow and even comparatively simplistic. For one thing it is filled with ornamentation that can obscure a piece's structure and seem, at first hearing, to substitute style for substance. Baroque style usually gave performers great leeway in embellishing their playing, but Couperin wrote extremely specific instructions about how his ornaments were to be played, and he complained when performers ignored them. ("An unpardonable negligence," he called it, "the more so since it is not at all an arbitrary matter to put in what ornaments one wishes.") In the last two books of the Pièces he even inserted marks to indicate phrasing. His embellishments went too far even for some eighteenth-century tastes. Hewitt notes that Bach apparently thought them "affected," and critic Charles Burney complained in 1789 that the pieces were "so crowded and deformed by beats, trills, and shakes, that no plain note was left to enable the hearer of them to judge whether the tone of the instrument on which they were played was good or bad." I sympathize. Listening to this whole disc at one sitting is a bit like being force fed too many petits fours — delicious at first bite but cloying after awhile.
Couperin loads these pieces with character and extra-musical associations. He often makes cryptic allusions to the courtiers who surrounded Louis XIV and Louis XV, both of whom he served, and to the events of his own life. I didn't find anything in this second volume to match the instantly gripping, hypnotic beauty of his famous Les Baricades Mistérieuses on Hewitt's first disc, but there are pleasures here nonetheless. Take for example the pensive Les Ombres Errantes or the very Bach-like Les Dars-homicides. Most of the pieces are just a few minutes long and many are almost Romantic in their introspection, anticipating the miniatures of Schumann or Chopin a century later.
Some listeners will think it's heresy to play Couperin — who wrote a seminal treatise on harpsichord playing — on a modern piano. But considering his daring in experimenting with chromaticism, his fussiness about describing exactly how his music should be played, and his interest in trying to capture subtle extra-musical ideas in his compositions, I bet he would have loved a big old Steinway with its greater range of pitch and volume — not to mention its sustaining and damper pedals.
Given who is sitting at this particular Steinway, who could blame him? Angela Hewitt is in the top echelon of modern interpreters of Bach. Her survey (on Hyperion) of his major keyboard works has produced indispensable recordings of the French and English Suites, the Toccatas and Partitas, and particularly the Well-Tempered Clavier. Her Goldberg Variations ranks alongside Murray Perahia's as my favorite interpretation of this masterpiece, outdistancing, yes, even Glenn Gould's. Here, as in her Bach, she plays with a combination of great intelligence and warmth. Her articulation is so clean that contrapuntal lines are always clear. Such clarity of playing is essential to appreciate these pieces packed with so many musical curlicues. As usual with Hyperion, the sound is excellent: warm and alive across the range of the keyboard. The disc is beautifully presented and benefits especially from the eloquent and illuminating notes that Hewitt herself wrote.
Though I tend to think that a little Couperin goes a long way, the combination of his fanciful invention and Hewitt's artistry makes this disc a consistent pleasure.