hristophe Rousset's first recording for Aparte, devoted to Louis Couperin, was received enthusiastically by public and critics alike and collected many distinctions in the international press, including a BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Choice. Since then he has continued to delight and excel both as harpsichordist and as director of Les Talens Lyriques. Now at the peak of his maturity, the artist presents Bach' musical testament: the Well-Tempered Clavier. Written 20 years after the first volume, Book II contains the musical and spiritual legacy of the composer. Christophe Rousset plays these pieces on the 1628 Ruckers harpsichord of Antwerp, one of the best examples of its kind in the world.
It is now some 12 years since William Christie made an excellent disc of Pancrace Royer's only published collection of harpsichord pieces (1746); and it was reissued recently on CD. Royer was a more prominent figure in French musical life than the comparative unfamiliarity of his name nowadays would suggest. He was an imaginative director of the Concert Spirituel, leader for several years of the Opéra orchestra, and a successful composer for the stage, as well. His ballet-héroIque, Zalde (1739) was especially popular and was still being performed in the 1760s. La Chasse do Zaide is the composer's own harpsichord arrangement of a "symphonie" in the opera and, in this new recital, Christophe Rousset appends it to the pieces of the 1746 publication. That, too, incidently contains a number of transcriptions by the composer of pieces from earlier stage works.
This recording by fine French harpsichordist Christophe Rousset exposes some music from beyond the famous names of the French Baroque. The central attraction is a pair of suites and three characteristic pieces by Louis Marchand, an organist at Versailles who is famous in musical history for having supposedly ducked an organ duel with J.S. Bach. His two suites recorded here were composed in 1702 and 1706, and thus are almost contemporary with the early Rameau Suite in A minor (1706), from his first book of keyboard suites. All the suites consist of a rhythmically free, quasi-improvised prelude followed by a series of stylized dances; three short character pieces by Marchand are also included as a sort of entr'acte.
Basically the story of the opera centres around the tussle between good and evil, the good being personified in Zoroastre with his love for Amelite and the evil in the sorceror Abramante allied to Erinice, the sister of Amelite who also desires Zorostrate but is vengeful because of rejection.
Rameau was 66 when he composed this piece and it reflects his maturity with its sensuous and cleverly designed music. There are layers of interpretation which are easy to miss but the excellent one hour documentary gives a great introduction and should be viewed first, something I failed to do and so became somewhat perplexed about what was going on. Unfortunately the accompanying booklet gives no written synopsis, an silly omission as the 4 minute verbal description is next to useless. I extracted one from the net and it helped to explain what was going on.
Pergolesi’s sublime setting of the Stabat mater, a 13th-century text that was accepted as part of the Catholic liturgy only in 1727, was written at the end of his brief life (he died in 1736 at the age of 26) and suggests that had he lived longer his name might be as familiar as Vivaldi. Rossini, in particular, admired it to such an extent that he was reluctant to accept the commission for his own setting (1842) on the grounds that it could never equal Pergolesi’s.
French composers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries delighted in adorning their pieces with foreign, in particular, Italian, elements, often calling attention to them in the titles. Among the most subtle transalpine stylists was Francois Couperin, who was refining the ‘French style’ and publishing his legacy in the form of harpsichord and chamber music. His contemporary, Marin Marais, contributed his own subtle essay in the exotic, a “Suitte d’un gout etranger” published in his Fourth Book of Pieces de une et a trois viole (1717), nearly 30 years after his First Book (the epitome of French viol playing) had appeared.
This opera concerns Perseus, his love for Andromeda, and his killing of the snake-headed gorgon Medusa. Jean-Baptiste Lully clearly meant the heroic Perseus to stand for Louis XIV, who commissioned the work. Indeed, while Persee is not on stage all the time, he is the central character of this lengthy, ceremonial, beautifully scored work. Those who love the peculiar formalities of French Baroque opera will need no coaxing.