Harpsichordists in 17th-century France comprised a highly prized and tightly knit group of musicians. The pieces on this recording emphasize the interconnectedness of this small circle through various references in the works themselves.
The first generation of court harpsichordists in the mid-17th century consisted of three younger colleagues of (and possibly students of) Jacques Champion de Chambonnières: Louis Couperin, Jean Henry D’Anglebert, and Nicolas Lebègue. The overlap between these musicians’ styles and approaches in their dance suites creates an identifiable “school” of harpsichord composition. Of these men, Couperin has perhaps the most recognizable name as progenitor of a family of musicians of significant stature and accomplishment. Couperin’s suite on this recording opens with an unmeasured prelude; we owe a debt to Couperin and his colleagues for developing a flexible notational system to share their quasi-improvisatory genre that Chambonnières mastered but never wrote down. Binary dances that follow remained popular throughout the next century: allemande, courante, sarabande, branle (a raucous little country dance that was also referred to as a “brawl” by English speakers), and chaconne.
This loose organization of dances into suites remained the general rule for French keyboard publications into the 18th century. Louis’s nephew, François Couperin le grand, was among the first to change this pattern by collecting suites of pieces with little nicknames, many of which remain mysterious to this day. This disc’s suite of pieces features a work called “The Little Windmills,” evidently inspired by the turning figuration of the melodic lines, “The Bells,” a sonorous piece with an appropriate name, and the enigmatically titled “The Little Milkmaids of Bagnolet.” The work opens with a grand piece called “La Superbe, ou la Forqueray,” honoring the gambist Antoine Forqueray; Couperin’s piece clearly draws inspiration from the rich low ranges, ornamental approach, and arpeggiated figuration on which Forqueray earned his reputation.
Forqueray’s own music brings the recording to a close. Originally composed for the viol, these works found new expressive possibilities in 1747 arrangements for solo harpsichord by Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, Antoine’s son (published at the same time as the viol compositions). These works make virtuosic demands on players, with appropriately grandiose names. “La Sylva” and “Jupiter” associate Forqueray’s works with godly powers. “La Boisson” counterbalances these divine attributions with its implied earthiness, and the opening piece, “La Rameau,” honors a then living and famous member of the harpsichord world, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau’s music may not appear on this disc, but the adventurous harmonic experiments of Forqueray’s piece gives us a sense of what Rameau’s forward-looking work would have sounded like to an 18th-century musician. It also reminds us that a program of French connections could go on to fill many discs; the small, tightly connected group of musicians whom people today sometimes call clavecinistes recognized and honored one another’s accomplishments through their body of work, providing us with ever expandable networks of associations.
— Jonathan Rhodes Lee