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Hyperion Records

CDA67480 - Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 2
Declaration of Love (detail) (1731) by Jean-François De Troy (1679-1752)
Schloss Charlottenberg, Berlin / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: July 2003
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: March 2004
Total duration: 72 minutes 53 seconds

'Hewitt's playing is equally representative of her general approach to his music. Her touch is amazingly light, incredibly crisp and alert to the possibilities afforded by the piano' (Gramophone)

'For someone of Angela Hewitt's pulling power to invite her fans so enticingly down so unfashionable a path—a poncy ancien régime twiddler? And on the piano!—is brave; and it's right' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Angela Hewitt is a remarkable musician with a highly refined sensibility. She makes use of the best qualities of the piano without stepping out of stylistic bounds … Such intelligent musicianship' (American Record Guide)

'In the expert hands of Angela Hewitt, François 'Le Grand' Couperin makes as easy a transition from harpsichord to piano as has Bach. The difference is that many people may—and should—now be listening to Couperin for the first time. Following the huge success of Hewitt's first volume of Couperin keyboard works [Hyperion CDA67440}—a selection from Books II and III of his Pieces de Clavecin, including the captivating 'Les Barricades Mystérieuses'—Hewitt now adds 21 more works from five 'Ordres' of Book IV, ranging from tranquil lyricism to full-blooded bragadoccio. Here is keyboard-playing of the highest order, in unfamiliar repertoire long due a sympathetic hearing.' (The Guardian)

'Hewitt chooses to approach these works with a reverent bow both to the composer and the instrument that inspired him, never making excessive use of dynamics, and keeping the gestures in a deliberately narrow emotional scope. Her musicality is always present but never blatantly displayed, emotions kept in check with refined restraint. In this economy of means, she seems to mirror Couperin's writing itself' (Fanfare, USA)

'Wit, tenderness, and sensibility—these essential elements of the Couperin style Hewitt provides with grace and scholarly affection, her Steinway piano singing in glorious Technicolor' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'La pianiste canadienne y séduit par une conduite très narrative, délicate, rendant chaque pièce de manière très caractéristique, et avec une éloquence certaine' (Classica, France)

Keyboard Music, Vol. 2

Angela Hewitt’s hugely successful first volume of François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin presented works from Books II and III of the cycle. Here we have a further twenty-one pieces, this time from Book IV.

Critical acclaim for the first volume (Hyperion CDA67440) surely makes this new disc a self-recommending classic.

Other recommended albums
'Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1' (CDA67440)
Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1
'Couperin: Livre de Tablature de Clavescin' (CDA67164)
Couperin: Livre de Tablature de Clavescin
MP3 £5.25FLAC £5.25ALAC £5.25Buy by post £5.25 CDA67164  Please, someone, buy me …  
'Fauré: Violin Sonatas' (CDH55030)
Fauré: Violin Sonatas
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55030  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Mendelssohn & Bargiel: Octets' (CDH55043)
Mendelssohn & Bargiel: Octets
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55043  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Bridge: Piano Trios & Phantasy Quartet' (CDH55063)
Bridge: Piano Trios & Phantasy Quartet
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55063  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This, the second of three Couperin CDs, concentrates on the fourth book of the Pièces de Clavecin. It was Couperin’s last published work, appearing in 1730, just three years before his death. His health was by now declining rapidly, as he confessed in the preface:

These pieces have been completed for about three years; but, as my health has been failing day by day, my friends have advised me to cease composing, and I have produced no important works as of late. I am grateful to the public for the applause so kindly given thus far to my works, and I believe that I deserve some part of it for the efforts I have made to please them. As scarcely anyone has composed more than I have, in various genres, I hope that my family will discover in my portfolios something which may cause me to be regretted, if indeed regrets are of any use to us after life. One must, however, hold to such an idea, if one is to endeavour to merit that chimerical immortality to which nearly all men aspire.

From where did this feeling of bitterness come? Couperin certainly no longer needed to prove himself. The melancholy and mystery that had always been present in his works are now more pronounced than ever. Descending chromaticisms abound in this last book. Unusual keys such as F sharp minor and F sharp major are used (only Bach before him had written keyboard music in those tonalities). Many pieces concentrate on using the top of the keyboard, rather than the lower half as was the case in the earlier volumes. The writing is for the most part more contrapuntal than before. One could be excused for thinking that several of the pieces in this last volume were by Bach himself. The similarities are certainly more than fleeting.

Concerning the Vingt-Cinquième Ordre which begins this CD, Couperin wrote:

My original intention in beginning the Vingt-Cinquième Ordre of this Livre was for it to be in C minor and C major, but after the first piece in C minor, the idea came to me to have another piece in E flat, the relative major of this Ordre in C minor (and for that reason). The first and third pieces having been lost, this Ordre is being presented as well as possible, for due to my poor health I did not consider it prudent to toil at the completion of this work. If these two pieces should reappear later, I shall remedy this myself, or at least I will supervise those who do so.

The opening piece, La Visionaire (‘The Visionary’), is certainly arresting. Written in French Overture style, the opening uses the characteristic dotted rhythms and flourishes. The traditional quicker second section starts innocently enough, but can’t help referring back to the snappy runs of the opening. In the seventeenth century the word ‘visionaire’ was used to describe an irrational man or woman – someone given to fanatical behaviour.

The next piece, La Misterieuse (‘The Mysterious One’), is one of the most beautiful and intriguing. Several writers on Couperin have already pointed out the similarity between the opening figure of this and that of Bach’s Italian Concerto, but the mood is so totally different that surely the likeness ends with the pattern of notes. It is, however, very Bachian in its use of sequences, pedal points, suspensions, sighing figures, and chromaticisms. The name of this piece is reflected in the tonal incertitude created by the strange oscillation between B flats and B naturals in the second section.

Grace and tenderness, which abound in the earlier pieces of Couperin, return in abundance in the short La Monflambert. It has a tinge of sadness, however, and is in the key of C minor. François Fagnier, Sieur de Monflambert, was councillor at the criminal courts of Châtelet. The piece probably describes his wife rather than himself.

The next piece is in total contrast, and is marked audacieusement (audaciously). La Muse Victorieuse (‘The Victorious Muse’) is certainly triumphant about something and not shy to tell it to the world. The joyful key of C major is used by Couperin. Who she is or what she has to celebrate is a mystery.

The joy doesn’t last for long, though, and we are immediately plunged into darkness with the last piece of this ordre, Les Ombres Errantes (‘Wandering Souls’). This is an extraordinary work, concise yet communicating a rare depth of expression. The shades in Greek mythology were those lost souls who could not descend into Hades because they had not received a proper burial. Was Couperin thinking of his theatrical friends to whom this had happened? In his day, people who had spent their lives in the theatre had to renounce their profession in order to receive a Christian burial. No doubt many of them refused to; others, like Molière, who died suddenly after suffering a haemorrhage during a performance, didn’t have time to think about it. This piece has a harmonic outline and expressive gestures that would not be out of place in a work of Schumann. Again we have weeping sighs, suspensions, and chromaticisms. Thus the ordre finishes in a very different mood than that in which it began.

The Vingt-Unième Ordre is entirely in the key of E minor, which was described by the French composer Charpentier (1643–1704) as being ‘effeminate, loving, and mournful-sounding’. Jane Clark suggests that this ordre might have something to do with an unsuccessful love affair. If so, then the inclusion of Couperin’s own self-portrait might suggest some marital infidelities …? It begins with La Reine des cœurs (‘The Queen of Hearts’) who proudly, but tenderly, rules over all. Then comes La Bondissante (‘The Bounding One’), which could either be a bounding heart or a woman who gives a man a hard time! It is marked gayement (gaily) and is not at all easy to play. The jewel of this suite is the next piece, La Couperin, which, although it could feasibly describe a female member of the Couperin family, surely depicts the composer himself. For this purpose, he chose an allemande – a dance which inspired Couperin, like Bach, to write some of his finest music. Already in the second bar we have the descending chromaticisms that appear so often in these last works. The counterpoint is masterly and Bach-like, with an almost obsessive repetition of an ascending four-note figure. The piece is marked d’une vivacité moderée (with a moderate liveliness). It is the only piece in this particular ordre that is not written in triple time.

I don’t think that La Harpée which follows has anything to do with the harp; more likely it plays on the old French verb ‘harper’ (to quarrel) and might have something to do with a quarrel between lovers, or between two rival lovers. At least it provides some energy after the rather languishing Couperin. It uses imitation between the hands to good effect.

The ordre ends in a rather offhand manner with La Petite Pince-sans-rire (‘The Straight-faced Wag’). This is perhaps the former mistress making some sly or malicious remark behind an expressionless face. Once again that descending chromatic line appears, giving us a feeling of disenchantment.

The next two pieces on this disc come from the Vingt-Quatrième Ordre in A major. Les Dars-homicides (‘Fatal Darts’) are none other than Cupid’s. This is a simple, charming rondeau with three couplets. In the last of those, the swirling figures in both hands could possibly be the confusion in the lover’s mind caused by the fatal glances of his mistress.

L’Amphibie (‘The Amphibious One’) is the closing piece of this ordre, and one of Couperin’s most powerful keyboard pieces. Subtitled Mouvement de Pasacaille it certainly seems like a marvellous specimen of this dance (the most famous of Couperin’s passacaglias being in the magnificent Huitième Ordre in B minor, see Hyperion CDA67440), but on closer examination we realize that there is no ostinato bass – an essential ingredient of the true dance. Nor is it a rondeau with a returning refrain. At times it seems like a set of variations, but then even that theory falls through. The title is a strange one, to say the least. In Couperin’s day, the word ‘amphibious’ was used to described someone who went quickly from one idea to another or expressed conflicting feelings in a short time. In his keyboard piece, Couperin goes from the noble, to the frivolous, to the overtly sad (perhaps with more than a touch of irony!), and makes his way back to the opening theme with an increasing animation, also shared by the left hand. Almost half of the piece is in the minor mode. The title certainly has nothing to do with being semi-aquatic!

The last two ordres in Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin are among the very best. The individual movements in each add up to a satisfying whole and make them excellent concert pieces. The Vingt-Sixième Ordre is in the unusual key of F sharp minor, or the ‘key of the goat’ as it was nicknamed at the time. That was because of the resulting harshness of the intervals when the meantone system was still in use. It makes us wonder if Couperin was indeed familiar with the first volume of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which appeared in 1722 – the first real music to use all twenty-four keys.

La Convalescente which opens the ordre was probably referring to Couperin’s own health, or rather lack of it. It is one of his best allemandes, rich in harmony and texture, and of course with those ever-present chromaticisms. Towards the end, the downbeat rests followed by a three-note figure seem to tell us not to disturb he who is resting, and the ending in the lower part of the keyboard seems appropriate.

The Gavote (sic) is Couperin’s last composition with purely a dance title, and has the requisite charm and elegance. Then comes La Sophie which could either be a portrait of yet another lady in Couperin’s entourage, or, as Jane Clark unravels, a ‘whirling dervish’. The latter was an order of mystic Muslims, the members of which were Sufis. A play by Monchesnay, Mezzetin Grand Sophy de Perse (1689), might have been known to Couperin. In any case, whether it be a young demoiselle whirling about the room or an Islamic mystic involved in devotional practices, the music speaks for itself. The same could be said about the next piece, L’Epineuse (‘The Thorny One’), Couperin’s last rondeau. The personnage thought to be depicted here is Maria Teresa d’Orsi, an actress in the King’s Comédiens Italiens. The structure of the work is really a rondeau within a rondeau, as half-way through Couperin switches from minor to major mode and introduces a new refrain. Six sharps was almost unheard of at the time, so this would have been a major challenge to the player.

This ordre finishes with La Pantomime, a brilliant portrayal of the actor Tiberio Fiorilli (1608–1694), otherwise known as Scaramouche. He was the most famous actor in his time of the Commedia dell’Arte and had a huge success in Paris with the Italian Troupe. The character of Scaramouche was based on a Neapolitan Captain who had a tendency to flee, and whose vainglorious and military personality he mimicked by using a guitar instead of a sword. Couperin’s piece is marked d’une grand précision (with great precision). Evaristo Gherardi, the director of the Italian Troupe, described his art in the following words: ‘… he made his audience rock with laughter … without once opening his mouth to speak. He possessed this marvellous talent to such a remarkable degree that he could, by the simplicity of pure nature alone, touch hearts more effectively than the most expert orators …’.

Couperin’s last work, the Vingt-Septième Ordre, is in the key of B minor – one of his favourite keys, and one described by Charpentier as being ‘solitary and melancholy’. No doubt Couperin felt that way at the end of his life. For the last nine years he lived in an apartment on the Rue Neuve des Bons Enfants, and gradually gave up his official posts. Many of his close friends were now dead. His health was bad, and his son had abandoned him. The ordre contains only four pieces, so is the shortest of the twenty-seven in that regard; but it also makes it feel slightly like a sonata da chiesa rather than a loosely knit suite of pieces. The opening allemande, L’Exquise, is indeed exquisite. It is serious in nature, and the counterpoint is masterly. How far we are from his early works! Then comes Les Pavots (‘The Poppies’). This is a piece to help put us to sleep, and refers to the fact that poppies (in the form of opium) were used as a pain-killer and sleeping drug – one that Couperin probably took. Lully wrote sommeils in his operas (we think especially of Atys) which featured muted violins and flutes in parallel thirds and sixths (as we have here). Except for the occasional cadential descent in the bass, the piece remains in the top half of the keyboard.

Les Chinois has nothing even remotely Chinese about it at all, and indeed it would be hard to find music that sounded more French than this! The title was also that of a play by Jean-François Renard, written in 1692, in which one of the characters is Chinese, thus satisfying the audience’s taste for a bit of exoticism. The opening section has the rhythm of a loure (a French dance, somewhat jig-like but slower), and should be played using the famous notes inégales. The section marked viste (fast) comes out of the blue, and then, just as suddenly, we return to the opening tempo. The inclusion of a repeat makes it even more problematic for finding the right pulse to make musical sense. Nevertheless, it stirs up excitement, and leads us nicely into the final piece of the ordre, Saillie. This literally means a spring or a leap, but can also mean a flash of wit. The former meaning comes out not only in the interval between the opening upbeat and the subsequent trill, but especially in the second section of the piece, where the hands engage in some acrobatic imitation. The latter meaning, however, is probably just as important, and certainly if wit can be defined as the ‘ingenuity shown by the unexpected combining or contrasting of previously unconnected ideas or expressions’, then that is certainly something Couperin had in abundance.

Angela Hewitt © 2004

Other albums in this series
'Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1' (CDA67440)
Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1
'Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 3' (CDA67520)
Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 3
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