COUPERIN Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript
For his latest Hyperion release, the immensely talented Pavel Kolesnikov has taken up an extraordinarily daunting challenge. In his decision to record Louis Couperin, he has chosen a corner of the French 17th-century harpsichord literature perhaps least susceptible to translation to other instruments. He has gone to considerable lengths to pull it off, including the use of two separate actions of distinct character in the Yamaha CFX concert grand he plays. One certainly understands the motivation. Louis, greatest of all the Couperins save for his nephew François, is a fascinating composer. What survives of his strikingly original and often dissonant music spans scarcely a decade of his all-too-brief life.
Of particular interest are Couperin’s quasi-improvisatory unmeasured preludes, a legacy of the Renaissance lutenists that would become a special province of the French clavecinistes. But it may be these characteristic pieces, structurally and texturally dependent on the rich overtones of the loosely strung harpsichord, that sacrifice most when transferred to the piano, with its taut steel strings and greatly reduced overtones. The unmeasured preludes that open the D minor and A major suites here come across more as schematic diagrams of pitches than surges of emotion, enhanced by the sympathetic vibration of strings.
The dances face similar impediments. Translating their precise, lean, sure-footed lines to the piano seems the equivalent of attempting to reproduce a fine 17th-century engraving using a felt-tip marker. Kolesnikov varies the tempos of the dances. No one would mistake one of his sarabandes for a gigue. But somehow the dances’ innate character remains elusive. Importation, however subtle, of the piano’s greater dynamic spectrum hinders rather than helps, obscuring more than it clarifies.
Very few pianists of Kolesnikov’s generation share his abundance of intelligence, sensitivity, imagination and sheer instrumental mastery. I lo