Couperin’s Keyboard Works – I

2003-05-01 / BBC Music Magazine / George Pratt

Agreeable agréments

Angela Hewitt has won widespread acclaim for her piano performances of Bach – nuch of his music incorporates an abstract quality which survives transfer to another medium. The challenge is greater with Couperin, whose style depends more overtly on the characteristics of the harpsichord. After I attuned my ears by sampling Rousset´s 1996 harpsichord recording (Decca L´Oiseau-Lyre), the transfer to Hewitt´s piano was surprisingly painless: both recording ambience and her Steinway are quite dry, and sie is sparing with pedal. But her performance (and excellent notes) make plain her commitment to period style, above all in the agréments about which Couperin himself was so particular. It´s a tribute to her outstanding control of touch that these ornaments flow so gracefully and naturally within the line.
In the ground-breaking Sixth Ordre, devoid of explicit dance titles, every contrasting movement is wholly absorbing. I revelled in “Les barricades mistérieuses”, the piano drawing out subtle new details from the texture. Of the 18th Ordre´s character-pieces, “Soeur Monique”, exquisitely underplayed, contrasts with the wittiest description of “Les maillotins”, with the right hand an octave up. Hewitt´s final Ordre, No. 8, includes a Sarabande, seemingly timeless until its violent interruptions, and the passionate Passacaille, expanding hypnotically through its 18 repetitions, argued by some to be Couperin´s finest keyboard piece.
Hewitt bridges the gulf between studio and home listener with uncanny directness. An outstanding disc.