Juilliard Baroque Serves a Repast of Nations

United StatesUnited States François Couperin: Juilliard Baroque, Corpus Christi Church, New York, 10.2.2013 (SSM)

Couperin: Selections from Les Nations

History did not make it easy for future generations to understand Couperin’s life or his music. Correspondence has not survived, and very few contemporary accounts exist of the man who was the French king’s harpsichordist.

Couperin lived during an era when old forms were being replaced with new ones whose coinage was up for grabs. Simphonie did not refer to our four-movement works but was a generic term for any music played with more than one instrument. Overtures were overtures to operas, but also dance suites such as the four ouvertures of Bach. Passacailles and chaconnes were totally interchangeable names for pieces based on a repeated ground; Couperin himself named one of his pieces Chaconne ou Passacaille. Les Nations: Sonades et suites de simphonies en trio is the full title, and it obfuscates more than it informs. Like Couperin’s Pièces de clavecin, Les Nations is divided into ordres. Couperin insisted on calling the opening abstract movements Sonades and the following dance movements Suites.

What do these appellations mean? Except for the tempo designations they give no information to the performers or the audience. Couperin must have found some pleasure in labelling his music with mysterious titles. While many of his keyboard works are simply named for their tempo, others are either character pieces (pièces de caractère) or outlandish jokes : Les Baricades Mistérieuses, Le Tic-Toc-Choc, Les Culbutes Ixcxbxnxs and Les Notables & Jurés Mxnxstrxndxurs.

The very form of Les Nations is sui generis. The opening Sonades are clear representatives of the Italian style sonata de chiesa, prominent in the music of Corelli. Usually there are four movements, alternately slow and fast, but here there are between six and eight. The dance movements that follow are French in style. Juilliard Baroque performed the entire first ordre and parts of the second and third, but only the opening sonade of the fourth.

The Juilliard Baroque consists of world-class authorities on period instruments. Monica Huggett’s 1984 recording of Les Nations under the direction of Jordi Savall is the standard against which other recordings are compared, and the quality of their performance here certainly was on that level. If one’s interest in these pieces flagged, only Couperin can be blamed. Les Nations includes both early and late work, and the earlier pieces lack the confidence of the more mature ones. The dance suites were much livelier, particularly in the third suite, where the music could have been written by Rameau in his Pièces de Clavecin (another misnomer for a work that can be played solely on the keyboard or with violin and keyboard).

The most interesting movements, and the ones given the most enthusiastic performances, were the Chaconnes and Passacailles. Rhythmically catchy, their recurring motives are in fact variations on a theme. Couperin, always unpredictable, ends only one suite with a Passacaille; the others are embedded in the suite or, as in L’impériale, followed by a short anti-climatic menuet.

The relatively small church held in the sound which would have died out in a larger venue.

Thanks to the Juilliard Historical Music Program for another challenging and rewarding production.

Stan Metzger