COUPERIN Pièces De Clavecin Troisieme Livre
The eminent French harpsichordist Blandine Verlet has again returned to Couperin, a composer with whom she has been intimately associated since recording his complete works some 40 years ago. I was enthusiastic about her earlier return to this repertoire, which included the 7th, 8th, 25th, 26th and 27th ordres from Books 2 and 4 of Couperin’s complete solo harpsichord works. It seemed to me then that the fundamental virtues of Verlet’s playing – simplicity, clarity, common sense, judiciousness – had simply mellowed into greater maturity and autumnal elegance.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this latest release, which includes the 13th and 18th ordres and a single selection, the enchantingly melancholy ‘La Favorite’ from the 3rd ordre. The playing is still straightforward, with few quirks of tempo and an even pulse, and she is still sparing with inégalité (far more so than she was in her first traversal of this repertoire). But the ornamentation now sounds more laboured and less refined, with simple trills frequently mannered in the way they begin with halting deliberation before snapping to completion. The steadiness of tempos becomes, at times, monotonous and there is a tendency to play everything very dry. The richness and whimsy of her earlier ‘La Favorite’ has been winnowed away, leaving just the bones of the piece, with only a hint of the lilting quaver figuration she used before. I prefer Rousset in this piece, and in most of the other works on this disc, including Couperin’s wonderfully wry, Gallicised take on the Spanish folia, ‘Les Folies françaises, ou Les Dominos’. Rousset finds the dance spirit within these short vignettes, which Verlet leaves mostly earthbound.
That these later-in-life second thoughts on Couperin are not just more spare, pared-down and retiring than the recordings she made in her thirties and forties, but more so even than her 2012 album (11/12) as well, is perhaps not a surprise. We use the word ‘autumnal’ too loosely, to suggest a style of playing, when it is, perhaps, more a habit of mind, a retreat from the self and the imposition of self on interpretation. For Verlet, it is an ongoing abnegation, and despite all of the virtues of this playing, its concision and intelligence, I confess it goes too far for me.