Couperin Keyboard Works I

2003-10-05 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Perry

What music! What a pianist!

François Couperin, Keyboard Music, Vol. 1 (Sixième Ordre, Dix-huitième Ordre, Huitième Ordre)

Once again a CD slated for review has sneaked so deeply into my affections that I have taken it for granted, like an old friend. Some review copies, like a house guest, demand special attention but after due thought and care is exercised upon them, they recede from one’s daily life. Out of earshot, out of mind. Marc-André Hamelin’s Hyperion disc of Szymanowski Mazurkas, extolled in a recent column, is a case in point. On the other hand, Angela Hewitt’s initial foray into the 226 harpsichord pieces of François Couperin, short works that were originally published in 27 Ordres, so deeply appealed to me — for both the poignant music and the superb performances — that I have carried it around until it seemed so familiar that it escaped mention here.

If you are an admirer of Hewitt’s critically acclaimed Bach recordings but missed out on this Couperin disc, let me make amends for my tardiness and bring you good news of Hewitt’s excellence in a fresh sphere.

Although Hewitt makes London her home, she is held in special regard by Ottawa music lovers because she was born and educated in the capital city. Her father, Godfrey, an English organist who emigrated to Canada to begin a 49-year career at Christ Church Cathedral, passed on his talents to an obviously precocious daughter who gave her first piano recital — a program of Bach Inventions — at age nine. At 15, she began piano studies with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa, and in 1985, her career leapt forward with a first prize at the Bach International Piano Competition.

Hewitt attributes much of what she understands about phrasing and articulation to the years she spent listening to her father play the organ, and she also acknowledges that her early ballet training bestowed her with special feeling for dance in the music of Bach. A third factor in the make-up of this highly intelligent and accomplished musician is well-informed francophilia, with a feeling for French style, poetry and language that drew her previously to the solo piano music of Ravel, and now to Couperin “Le Grand.”

By instinct, inclination, and training, Angela Hewitt emerges as the perfect interpreter of the music of François Couperin. I suspect that the cavils of purists who argue that these pungent pieces of diverse temperament must be played on a harpsichord will quickly evaporate when they hear Hewitt’s command of the gallant style. What Hewitt has said of her Bach playing applies here as well: “You know, I really never think about the fact that I’m playing Bach on a piano. I’m thinking more of the human voice, of the violin, of an orchestra.”

Hewitt has so fully entered into Couperin’s sensibility in these solo keyboard pieces, and her dexterity is so completely at the service of her intellectual and emotional understanding of the music, that it is easy to forget that one is hearing hands striking any mechanical instrument. The music flows naturally and spontaneously, without any exhibitionism, forcing or sense of technical impediment.

And what music! Chosen by Louis XIV to serve as an organist at the Royal Chapel, Couperin (1668-1733) continued to act as court harpsichordist after the king’s death. Deeply impressed by the music of Corelli, Couperin introduced Italianate spirit into the formal structure of French court and church music. In her detailed and illuminating 14-page essay on Couperin which accompanies the disc (is any recording company more generous than Hyperion with liner notes?), Hewitt suggests that Couperin’s embracing of the Italian style gives “great vitality to the fast pieces and a wonderful lyricism adapted from the bel canto style in the slow ones.”

Furthermore, writes Hewitt, under Louis XIV, music and dance “were virtually inseparable, with gesture taking precedence over thematic discourse,” and it is this emphasis on fluent and graceful gesture, on stylish deportment, that separates the music of Couperin from that of Bach. Hewitt also understands and fully manifests in her playing the fact that ornamentation, which can sound so affected and distracted from lesser hands, serves very exact expressive purpose.

I can’t help but believe that Couperin, who wrote that “beautiful playing depends a great deal more on suppleness and great freedom of the fingers rather than on force,” would be delighted with Angela Hewitt’s gracious facility in service to music that is predominantly descriptive but also filled with pathos, humour and spiritual joy.