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Le tombeau de Couperin

composer
begun in the summer of 1914; piano version published in 1917; originally envisaged as a Suite française; first performed by Marguerite Long on 11 April 1919; four-movement orchestral suite completed the same year

 
Maurice Ravel was one of the great orchestrators of the early 20th century and so I’ve always thought it a great shame that he didn’t write for the organ. Of all his pieces, Le tombeau de Couperin is certainly the one that translates across to the organ most naturally, with at least three organists writing their own transcriptions. The ‘Forlane’ in particular feels as if it was always an organ piece! For this recording I have chosen three movements of the transcription by Dutch organist Erwin Wiersinga. He stays relatively loyal to the piano original, drawing on some moments of the orchestral version for added colour. Crucially, though, it sounds like an organ piece. When working with transcriptions there can be a temptation to try and replicate absolutely every orchestral sound; indeed, when playing a large symphonic organ such as those found in abundance in America, it is possible to find stops that replicate almost every instrument, from bass drums to harps. In this case, though, I haven’t tried to do that, instead trying to choose the sounds that might have been chosen if this were originally written as an organ piece.

The ‘Prélude’ is elegant and graceful, made up of constant semiquavers passing between the two hands. On the organ, there is a real sense of the 8’ flute and string stops dancing around the space, chasing each other around the cathedral. Ravel’s nods to the French clavecinists include frequent mordents and a prevalence of open 4ths and 5ths, but the whole prelude has a distinctly Impressionist flair.

Of the three movements presented here, the ‘Forlane’ is the one with the most direct links to Couperin. Ravel was known to have transcribed for piano Couperin’s ‘Forlane’ from the 4th Concert royal, and there are distinct rhythmic and structural similarities with Ravel’s own composition. This is also the movement which allows for the most tonal exploration. The opening motif is given character by a Nazard, whilst a little further on, cheeky reed stops are used to bring humour to the accented chords in the left hand. A middle section, evoking a stately dance, provides an opportunity to hear three different 8’ flutes—first on the Choir, then the Swell, then the Great, each with distinct characteristics. The end of the piece is where the real fun is held, though. Some highly chromatic ‘hurdy gurdy’ material is coloured by a Bourdon with a Tierce, followed by the Vox humana used with the tremulant. The piece closes with a single humorous 4’ flute.

The ‘Rigaudon’ is a vivacious folk dance characterised by hopping steps, heard here in the frequent staccato parallel chords. The energetic, breathless outer sections are juxtaposed with a sensual middle section where a winding gypsy melody is heard in the oboe, accompanied by pulsing chords in the left hand and pedals.

from notes by Anna Lapwood © 2021

Recordings

Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music
CDA67341/22CDs
Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music
CDA67731/22CDs
Ravel, Fauré & Poulenc: LCO Live
SIGCD211Download only
Images
Studio Master: SIGCD688Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Prélude
Movement 2: Forlane
Movement 2: Fugue
Movement 3: Forlane
Movement 3: Menuet
Movement 4: Rigaudon
Movement 5: Menuet
Movement 6: Toccata

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