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Francois Couperin
Pieces pour Clavecin 
Blandine Rannou, harpsichord

Review By David Cates
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Francois Couperin Pieces pour Clavecin

CD Label: Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 040401

 

  Astounding. Allow me to emphasize; this is really fabulous music-making by a wonderfully imaginative and fluent performer. Francois Couperin's music is often enigmatic and quite elusive, and this performance brings it to life in a way that nobody has done before. I might have said incredible, but the wonderful thing is that Blandine Rannou's novel approach to this music makes it more convincingly genuine than I've ever heard. (There's one other recording that comes close: Skip Sempe on DHM, 1990, nla).

The first time I heard this CD I was frankly astonished. I've heard several of Ms. Rannou's previous recordings (Bach's English Suites, reviewed here last year, and her complete Rameau set, all on Zig-Zag, a really fine small French label), and it's evident that she has grown; her musical sensibility has matured and is completely suited to this music. Rannou's playing is marvelously fluid, supple, and inventive. She has a gift for flexible rhythm that shapes each phrase and provides all sorts of nuances in movement and energy; it's very dance-like and free. She will at times pull back a bit, as if to hover on the edge of a precipice, while at other times she accelerates jauntily toward the end of a phrase. It's all quite playful, musical, and natural. Personally, I don't find it mannered or eccentric at all — just alive. It's far from that square, metrically rigid stiff playing that many consider proper for baroque music, which to my ears sounds drearily dull. This playing swings. Listen to tracks 2, 3, and 4 from disc one, and you'll see what I mean.

Much of this music is terribly hard to play. It's full of all sorts of ornaments in all kinds of inconvenient places — little twiddles and flutters here and there — and they must be brought off lightly, effortlessly, and in the background to allow the music to move with them, not be interrupted by them. The ornaments are a complex part of Couperin's intricate poetry. At this, as with other dimensions of the music, Blandine is absolutely masterly.

All this great stuff is enveloped in a wonderful atmosphere of sound; a lovely instrument (made by Anthony Sidey in 1988 after an original 1636 Ruckers altered by Henri Hemsch in Paris in the 18th century), well recorded. I've heard this instrument is a particular favorite in France currently, and it's certainly become this performer's favorite instrument — it's been featured on all her recent recordings.

So, you might read further, but go out or go online and get this CD–do give it a try!

Now, as to the sound: luscious and rich. The instrument has a very wet-sounding, reverberant one, and that's not inconsistent with this music. I can't tell what acoustic it's recorded in, but the sound is really bathed in resonances. It may take a little getting used to. A really fine, neutral playback system should clean up the sound quite a bit, which I find helpful, but it's clearly meant to sound this way. It's a little over the top but it works.

There are different ways this music could sound convincing, as each kind of harpsichord has a different sound aesthetic. If this vision of Couperin's sound is only one of several plausible ones, it is captivating in its way.

The artist's approach to programming on this 2-disc set is quite original and wholly successful. Instead of playing complete suites as published (some of which have over 20 movements and can run to 40 minutes or more; were those really intended as one composition?), Rannou intersperses brief preludes with groups of 3 or 4 pieces in compatible keys drawn from one or more suites, mixing and matching at will. The result is entertaining and well paced, and avoids the typical baroque suite tedium; we get a nice mix of familiar favorites and gems, long with some infrequently heard works that sound in her hands like freshly discovered masterpieces.

Couperin was a kind of odd composer; very little is known about him. He was the most famous of a dynasty of musicians, a contemporary of Bach and Rameau, and named one of the organists of the Chapel Royal when he was 25. He was an important part of the musical circle of Louis XIV's court at Paris and Versailles. His solo harpsichord compositions are encompassed in four books — the first published in 1713, the last in 1730 — and eight preludes from a treatise called "l'Art de Toucher le CLavecin" (the art of playing the harpsichord) printed in 1716. Couperin's prominence at court faded with the death of the king in 1715, after which he became gradually more reclusive and less active. It is said he was a melancholy, introverted man. It seems he belonged partly in the musical world of the seventeenth century, and wrapped in the life of the court of the great Louis XIV; the world of opera and large-scale music that many of his contemporaries, like Rameau, pursued may have held little attraction for this very intimate and unique musician.

A stunning recording. Enjoy this music.

 

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