Couperin Escapes the ‘Antique Armoire’ with Stimulating Results

United StatesUnited States Ravel, Couperin, and Beethoven: Jennifer Pike (violin), Arensky Chamber Orchestra, William Kunhardt (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 7.5.2013 (MB)

Ravel:  Le Tombeau de Couperin
Couperin:  Concerts royaux (excerpts)
Beethoven:  Violin Concerto in D major, op.61

Matthew Sharp (actor)

Simon Gethin Thomas (lighting)

It is an obvious thing to do, or at least one might hope it would be, to perform Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin with music from Couperin’s Concerts royaux; the problem is that to do so nowadays is to take on the ‘authenticity’ Taliban, a task which many, in the teeth of such vociferous hostility, have decided is no longer worth it. They are wrong, yet one can understand the reasons for their wariness. After all, even Pierre Boulez, not a stranger to controversy, once ruefully remarked, concerning Bach’s BrandenburgConcertos, ‘… even as I was making my way forward, until about 1978, the specialists were simultaneously taking over. They were starting to say, “If they’re not played in the true baroque manner, with baroque instruments, it’s useless to play them any other way.” Then one isn’t going to play them at all.’ One would have thought it axiomatic that, in Boulez’s words, ‘A musician approaching an eighteenth-century work after playing something from the twentieth would have a much broader view than these eighteenth-century specialists who end up locking themselves in an antique armoire.’ Alas, it has taken longer than anyone, perhaps even Adorno, might have feared to escape the armoire, a state of affairs compounded by the culture industry’s compartmentalisation of ‘period’ music as something akin to so-called ‘costume drama’. Three cheers, then, to the Arensky Chamber Orchestra, already having made quite a name for itself in terms of bold programming and bold presentation, for defying the armoire fatwas!

Anyway, irrespective of inclement performing conditions, the concert’s the thing. Interspersing movements from the first, third, and fourth Concerts royaux with those from Le Tombeau de Couperin proved an inspired choice. The ‘Prélude’ was swift, fleeting even, perhaps a reflection of the relatively small forces (strings but perhaps not. The sharp attack and unanimity I have noted on previous occasions again proved a hallmark of the ACO’s excellent ensemble. William Kunhardt conducted without the score (though he would use one for Beethoven.) Urgency was perhaps underlined by the players’ standing to play (save for cellos and basses). The ‘Prélude’ from the Third Couperin suite was taken, as indeed were all the Couperin excerpts, with darkened lighting, focused upon the soloists, a chamber rather than orchestral approach having been decided upon. It was a good choice to follow the Ravel, not least on account of the continuity of oboe-playing (here, beguilingly played by Johnny Roberts). Strings, who had definitely been ‘accompanying’, came into their own in the ensuing ‘Forlane’ from the fourth Concert royal. Rhythms were nicely turned throughout. Ravel’s ‘Forlane’ was characterised by freshness, by a spring in its step, rhythmic alertness apparently ‘carried over’ from its Couperin predecessor. The ‘Menuet’ was more relaxed, indeed affectionate, Kunhardt differentiating it nicely from the previous dance. Harmonic echoes of, for instance, the Pavane pour une infante défunte were allowed to speak; rubato was well judged. There was a true sense of a world – ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ – lost. The ‘Menuet en trio’ from Couperin’s first suite had a good degree of give-and-take between parts; violin, flute, and cello were equal partners in a graceful reading. Strings again played alone in the ‘Rigaudon’ from the fourth: a catchy reading, somewhat akin to courtlier Purcell, with especially fine articulation from Charlotte Maclet’s violin. Ravel’s own ‘Rigaudon’ perhaps suffered a little from less-than-ideal balance, the brass somewhat dominating the small orchestra. Otherwise, it was a lively account, with welcome hints of greater languor in the central section.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto followed the interval: a contrast rather than a connection, but no less welcome for that. Actor Matthew Sharp, dressed as Beethoven, seated at a desk, read the ever-moving Heiligenstadt Testament (in translation), after which Jennifer Pike, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year, joined the orchestra onstage. Wind instruments were naturally more prominent in a small orchestral performance than they would have been with a full symphony orchestra, and very good they were too. But there was, from the outset, a febrile intensity to the string playing too. Kunhardt led a relatively swift, but never hard-driven, performance of the first movement, Pike proving a bright- and clean-toned soloist, quite ready to yield where necessary. Ensemble was again excellent throughout. If the soloist’s intonation was not always perfect, nor were any such shortcomings other than minor. Certainly, taken as a whole there was a proper sense of the goodness of composer and music, as heard in the Testament, and anyone who does not regard Beethoven’s music as concerned with ethics has no business performing it. Small string forces emphasised the kinship of the slow movement with chamber music, poised in this case not so very far away from the Beethoven of the string quartets, whilst woodwind offered a quickening sense of the world of the outdoor serenade. Pike’s silvery tone brought the music closer to Mendelssohn than one often hears. The transition to the finale was very well handled by conductor and orchestra alike; that movement brought with it more than a faint echo of the Mozartian ‘hunting’ finale, more ebullient than often, and rather winningly so. Horns and other wind unquestionably sounded in their element.

Mark Berry