COUPERIN Complete Works for Harpsichord
‘I would argue that he was the greatest of the Couperins’, writes harpsichordist Richard Egarr of Louis (c1626-1661), the uncle of François ‘le grand’. It’s a bold statement and, by investing his intellectual and artistic energies in a four-disc survey of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord works, Egarr is backing it up with an impressive display of imaginative interpretation. On the page, Couperin’s harpsichord works often look closer to the severe drama of Froberger than the endless wit, variation and elegance of François. But Egarr’s playing yields compelling variety and prismatic possibilities in the preludes, dance movements and majestic chaconnes, organised by the performer into his own well-balanced suites.
On recordings Egarr isn’t immediately associated with this repertoire, rather with Purcell, Bach, Handel and Mozart. And it doesn’t always feel like it’s his natural territory. Ornamentation tends to be taut rather than pliant and its expressive power is kept within clearly delineated bounds. Compare Egarr’s reading of the famous ‘Tombeau de M Blancrocher’ with Christophe Rousset’s 2010 recording on a two-disc set of Louis Couperin’s music (Aparté) and you hear a more formal and contained account. Rousset is a risk-taker and in the end far more dramatic and expressive. Much of the drama in this music comes after the note is played, with the decay and the play of overtones giving it a haunting inwardness. By letting the instrument ring, investing in the silences and slowing the pace down, Rousset harks back to the music’s origins in the lute repertoire, which yields a stronger, more private account of this deeply mournful piece.
Egarr’s strength emerges where one wants simplicity, where the music needs to unfold directly and without too much interpretative intrusion. Even in sharply rhythmic dances, such as the ‘Branle de Basque’ in F major, he produces an aristocratic smoothness that is arguably better suited to the composer than the sharp snaps and rhythmic punch of other interpreters. In the preludes, Egarr knits together the music into a close, composed weave, rather than something seemingly improvised and fitfully delivered.
Two instruments are used, both modern. One is based on a Flemish Ruckers from 1638 and the other on a slightly later French instrument. The tuning, which Egarr likens to sharp cheese – ‘more roquefort than brie’ – is decidedly pungent. Too much so for my taste, but it does add a dramatic snarl to the sound.
Quibbles aside, there are two compelling reasons to own this set: it is endlessly entertaining and vibrant music; and, with the exception of a handful of movements not available to the player, it is presented complete. Louis Couperin deserves the honour of a new, meticulously performed and recorded complete edition, and lovers of the harpsichord repertoire shouldn’t be without one.