Couperin Pieces de Violes
The memory of hearing Jordi Savall’s 1975 recording of Couperin’s two unequalled Suites for bass viols has never left me, so returning to it after many years was inevitably loaded with expectations. In the interim a new generation of interpreters has emerged, including Philippe Pierlot in 2008 and, now, Mikko Perkola.
Savall’s version still has the power to stun the listener. In the first phrase of the Prélude of the E minor First Suite, we enter the soundscape of another era, as in Watteau’s paintings of the mythical island of Cythera, both courtly and ethereal. Although still at the beginning of his career as a viol player, Savall, serenely supported by Ton Koopman, plays with consummate mastery of Couperin’s style. He caresses the notes, and shapes and moulds the phrases, adding just the right amount of silence, allowing the music to breathe. However, some tempi now seem a little slow.
In his recording, Pierlot augments the original instrumentation (two viols are specified in the 1728 edition) with harpsichord and plucked instruments (theorbo and guitar), creating a rich and varied tapestry of accompaniment. He brings, too, a greater sense of architecture to the music – but at a cost: what was magical has become, while technically superb (his version of ‘La chemise blanche’, in particular, is impressive), somewhat mundane.
Mikko Perkola (like Pierlot, once a pupil of that other great modern exponent of the viol, Wieland Kuijken) and the harpsichordist Aapo Häkkinen offer a beautifully paced alternative, resonant and reflective. They create a wonderful sense of intimacy in the Sarabande of the First Suite, Perkola artfully closing it with a gently strummed chord; the ‘Pompe funèbre’ in the A major Second Suite is beautifully thought through. Perkola occasionally lets his guard down, his tone quality suffering in both final movements. Häkkinen contributes a delightfully expressive performance of Couperin’s 27th Ordre to round off the CD. I, for one, will be returning to Savall’s seminal interpretation.