François Couperin: Les Nations Sonades, et Suites de Simphonies en Trio

Juilliard Baroque
100:13 (2 CDs)
Naxos 8.573347-48

There are times when I wish Couperin had never offered performers the options of instrumentation that are attached to his Concerts Royaux. Had he not done so, I suspect that we would now treat Les Nations as music for a standard Italianate string trio sonata ensemble more or less without question. Juilliard Baroque, on the other hand, have to all intents and purposes orchestrated it, including passages in which more than one instrument combine on an upper line. I found this irritating and distracting to the point at which it became difficult to appreciate the great musicianship of much of the playing. At least they could allow individual movements an individual sonority. The note (English/French) is interesting on the subject of the music but avoids issues of performance practice. It also suggests that each sonata/suite lasts over 30 minutes – contradicting the recorded durations printed opposite. The recorded sound is very good though the balance of the parts sometimes disadvantages the flute or over-favours the oboe. Nice to hear the continuo, though. Overall, frustrating.

David Hansell


 

Couperin’s great collection of four ordres, written towards the end of his life, were composed to represent the styles of four nations – France, Spain, Italy and Piedmont. Each consists of a large-scale opening sonata (sonade) in several movements, and a series of dances with the inevitable chaconne or passacaille. Les Nations is scored for two treble instruments, bass instrument and a figured bass continuo line, leaving the choice of instrumentation to the players. Here Juillard Baroque uses two violins, transverse flute and oboe for the two upper lines, and bass viol, bassoon, theorbo, guitar and harpsichord for the two lower lines. Some may perhaps find the ensemble’s swapping of instruments between movements – and in some cases during movements – disturbing, while others may appreciate the contrasts which aptly reflect the affekt of each section implied in Couperin’s writing. That said, Juilliard Baroque has assembled a team of some of the top players for this recording who seem totally at ease with the French style, their ornaments seeming to flow naturally from the melodic line. Listeners unused to the French Baroque may find it difficult to distinguish between the national styles implied in each suite; for, with the incessant ornamentation (all according to the composer’s own markings, with nothing added) all may sound French! Subtle stylistic differences in each suite, however, can be appreciated by the discerning listener. (For those interested in following the score, a facsimile can be downloaded from the IMSLP site.) I found the recording quality a little bright, so some may wish to ‘tone down’ the treble. As with many Naxos issues, a magnifying glass may be required for the booklet notes.

Ian Graham-Jones