Saturday, October 28, 2023

The harpsichord under Louis XV

We are used to see recordings of keyboard music by composers who are hardly known, mainly thanks to the releases of Brilliant Classics. The latter mostly include music by Italian composers. It seems that the map of the landscape of keyboard music in 18th-century France has hardly any white spots. That is a mistake, if we look at some of the releases reviewed here.

Christophe Moyreau and Charles Alexandre Jollage were contemporaries; the former is not mentioned in my edition of New Grove, the entry about the latter is confined to less than ten lines. It is interesting to listen to the oeuvre of these two in comparison: they may have been contemporaries but were stylistically different.

Christophe Moyreau [1] was born in Orléans where he worked all his life. He was educated as an organist, and acted in this capacity for most of his career. Although he seems not to have left any organ works, some of his harpsichord pieces that Fernando de Luca included in his recording, can be played on the organ, such as Les Cloches d'Orléans, which is included in his Op. 5 and closes the sixth disc. His keyboard works were published around 1753; the last disc of the set includes 'sinfonias' and 'concertos' which are dated 'c1760'.

The most common form of harpsichord works in France was the suite. In the 17th century composers left it to the performers to put together a suite according to their own preferences. In the 18th century composers published their pièces de clavecin as fixed suites. Another development was the introduction of character pieces. These became increasingly important and started to overshadow the traditional dances. Often suites also included pieces based on a basso ostinato, such as chaconne and passacaille. Moyreau's five books of harpsichord pieces are a little different. They include suites, but also pieces with the title of sonata, in four movements, following the Italian model: slow - fast - slow - fast. In addition there are some concertos and a few individual overtures. Some suites are extremely long: the Op. 1 includes a Suite in d minor, which takes here the complete first disc, lasting more than 64 minutes. Some individual pieces are quite long as well: La Parissienne from Op. 5 takes more than eight minutes, Le Pegase from Op. 4 almost nine. In the above-mentioned Suite in d minor we find some sort of operatic scenes, about the Cyclops and Apollo.

Stylistically Moyreau's music reminds me of that of his contemporary Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. The first of the two pieces about the Cyclops includes effects that show strong similarity to Balbastre's , Marche des Marseillois et l'air ça-ira. Those who have a more than average knowledge of French harpsichord music know what to expect. Moyreau's music may be considered a token of the decline often associated with Balbastre. Not every lover of French harpsichord music may appreciate it. I would not recommend listening to Moyreau's music at a stretch. It is better to take one disc at a time or even a part of it. I have nothing but praise for Fernando De Luca's performance. He rightly does play Moyreau with aplomb; too much subtlety would be out of place. This is mostly pretty extraverted stuff, and that is the way De Luca treats it.

The fact that all of Moyreau's books of harpsichord pieces were published in one year, suggests that they were written over a longer period of time. Therefore, it is anything but sure that the Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin by Charles-Alexandre Jollage [2], which was printed in 1738, is much older. However, stylistically the pieces included in this book are much more conservative.

It is not known exactly when Jollage was born; it is assumed it must have been around 1700. The place of his birth is not known either, but it seems likely that he was from the same region as Moyreau. Like he, Jollage was educated at harpsichord and organ, and worked as organist for most of his life. In 1755 he became one of the four organists of the Notre-Dame in Paris, alongside Daquin, Armand-Louis Couperin and René Drouard du Bousset. Apparently he had worked for quite some time in Paris as a harpsichord teacher.

The first book of pieces for the harpsichord is the only music of his pen ever printed. It consists of two suites in G major/minor and in A major/minor respectively. One of the features is that some pieces are divided into two sections, the first in major, the second in minor. In accordance with the conventions of the time, most movements are character pieces. The titles are mostly hard to interpret, but Le Postillon (Suite in A major/minor) cannot be misunderstood. Another notable piece is Les Caquets (the singular means 'chatter') (Suite in G major/minor). The same suite includes L'Obstinée, which is another nice musical painting.

In New Grove Jollage's music is called "bland and conventional". I politely disagree. I have enjoyed these two suites, and they are definitely more to my taste than the music by Moyreau. Fernando De Luca has caught their character very well, and plays with more restraint and more subtlety than Moyreau's oeuvre. This is the first recording of Jollage's harpsichord music, and that is well deserved.

If there is one French composer whose harpsichord music has strong operatic traits, it is Jean-Philippe Rameau [3]. Although it dates from the time before he turned to opera, it shows that he was an operatic genius from early on. Some of his harpsichord pieces were later orchestrated and included in his operas. This was the reverse of the common habit of transcribing operatic music for harpsichord. Rameau paid tribute to the latter practice in that he published Les Indes galantes 1735 in the form of Quatre grands concerts to be played on harpsichord(s) or by an instrumental ensemble. This was the inspiration to the recording by Loris Barrucand and Clément Geoffroy. Some of the pieces need a third hand or can only be played by two players, which explains that the music on their disc is played on two harpsichords. They have chosen pieces from four operas, which are connected by the fascination for the culture of the East, and especially that of Persia.

The operatic nature of the music comes perfectly off. The interpreters play with aplomb and imagination. That said, those who know and love Rameau's operas will miss something that it a hallmark of his operas: the colours of the orchestra. Rameau was a masterful orchestrator, which earned him the admiration of composers of later generations, such as Berlioz and Debussy. This aspect is lost in a transcrioption for harpsichord(s), and therefore a disc like this may appeal more to lovers of the harpsichord than admirers of Rameau's operas.

The fourth disc does not include opera transcriptions, but is theatrical in that Céline Frisch [4] ordered the pieces with the aim of illustrating a day at the court. The first chapter is called "the beginning of the day and the mass": each day started with a mass in the Chapelle Royale. It opens with Le réveil-matin (the alarm clock) from François Couperin's 4e Ordre and closes with Carillon ou cloches by Pierre Dandrieu. The second chapter is about hunting: "Les plaisirs de la chasse". That is also the title of a cycle of pieces by Louis-Claude Daquin, which takes this entire chapter. Then comes "Promenade amoureuse et bucolique". Among the pieces are Les tendres sentiments by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer and Le Rossignol-en-amour from Couperin's 14e Ordre. "Les jeux et le divertissement de la cour", which is about the evening entertainment, is the title of the fourth chapter. It opens with Couperin's Les Amusemens (7e Ordre) and also includes some transcriptions of operatic pieces by Rameau, from the pen of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. At the end of the programme, the king goes to bed, with Michel Corrette's Les Étoiles.

Céline Frisch's performances are profiled characterisations of the different pieces; one of the highlights is Daquin's cycle about the hunt. Apart from Frisch's playing, it is due to the harpsichord that the various pieces come off so well: it is a copy of an instrument by Jean-Claude Goujon (before 1749), ravalé by Joachim Swanen (1784). It has a strong sound, and also has a knee-lever mechanism, which allows for a change in registration. Frisch uses it in Balbastre. Rather than simply presenting a random selection of pieces, she tells a kind of story here, which makes it a very entertaining recital.

One of the composers included in her programme is the subject of the last disc to be reviewed here: François d'Agincour(t) [5], who was born and died in Rouen, where he was active as organist all his life. For some time he also acted as one of the organists of the Chapelle Royale. He was a strong admirer of François Couperin; in the fourth suite of his only book with harpsichord pieces, Premier livre de clavecin (1733), he devoted some pieces to him. He also called his suites ordres, and - like those by Couperin - they mostly consist of character or genre pieces. The book was dedicated to the Queen of France, Marie Leczinska. This explains the opening of the book with the Allemande La Couronne. The countryside makes its appearance with Les Danses Provençales. In the Second ordre we find a scene of a play, the rondeau Le Colin Maillard, which Céline Frisch also included in the chapter devoted to the entertainment at the court. The second suite ends with the beautiful Chaconne La Sonning.

D'Agincourt is one of the lesser-known composers of keyboard music from 18th-century France. That is regrettable, and it is nice that Stéphane Béchy has taken the initiative to record his harpsichord book complete; this is the first volume, which hopefully will be followed by another disc, which may also contain (at least a part of) d'Agincourt's organ works. I very much like Béchy's playing, which is stylish and subtle. This recording makes crystal clear that the negligence of d'Agincourt's oeuvre is undeserved. It's time for a revaluation. This disc helps.

[1] Charles Moyreau: "Complete Harpsichord Music"
Fernando De Luca, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96285 (© 2022) details

[2] Charles-Alexandre Jollage: "Premier livre de Pièces de Clavecin"
Fernando De Luca, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96773 (© 2023) details

[3] Jean-Philippe Rameau: "Fêtes Persanes"
Loris Barrucand, Clément Geoffroy, harpsichord
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS079 (© 2022) details

[4] "L'aimable - Une journée avec Louis XV"
Céline Frisch, harpsichord
Alpha 837 (© 2022) details

[5] François d'Agincourt: "Pièces de Clavecin - Livre de 1733 Vol I"
Stéphane Béchy, harpsichord
BY Classique BY003 (© 2022) details

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