Couperin: Keyboard Works – I

2003-05-31 / The Commercial Appeal / Fredric Koeppel

COUPERIN Keyboard Music, Vol. 1

Angela Hewitt, having triumphed with Bach and Ravel, honors French Baroque composer François Couperin with the same meticulous treatment in an utterly charming album, the first of three she will devote to his keyboard music.

Perhaps the most important element of Couperin’s keyboard music, written for harpsichord though performed here on piano, is grace. Couperin was among the first composers living north of Italy to incorporate Italian lyricism and freshness into his music, while retaining the formality and ornamentation required by decorum. The result is enchanting and irresistible music of which the fifth selection on this album, the beautifully flowing, melodious and winsome Les Baricades Misterieuses, is a perfect example.

Couperin (1668-1733), who capped his renowned career with an appointment as harpsichordist to the king, wrote 234 pieces for the instrument. He grouped the short works – the longest on this album is not quite five minutes – into four books comprising 27 Ordres, not wanting to be confined by the traditional title “suite.” Indeed, the 25 works selected by Hewitt, from three of the Orders from Books 2 and 3, display remarkable freedom in technique and mood. The extremes of character, even the sense of eccentricity, reflect the odd titles of the works: Le Gazoueillement, Le Turbulent (not so much turbulent as fast and swirly), Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins (not surprisingly like a hectic mechanical clock). Despite research, many of these titles remain obscure, though they often seem to make in-jokes about contemporary figures or theatrical productions.

Hewitt’s affection for this work is palpable. All her attention, agility and tenderness are called upon, and she does not fail to deliver. This one repays many listenings.