Couperin - Pièces à deux Violes


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On two historical violas da gamba and in the best baroque tradition, Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel perform François Couperin's extraordinary music from his harpsichord works - the Pièces de Clavecin - as concerts for 2 viols, unraveling a new magical world.

François Couperin, the Great ( 1668-1733) was one of the most important French composers of all times, enjoying during his life the prestige of a national figure. Following 18th century French tradition, Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel chose from his wonderful harpsichord works, pieces idiomatic for 2 viols, making the necessary adaptations, as Couperin himself prescribed in the preface to the third book of Pièces de Clavecin (1722).

Those pieces encompass several musical genres: preludes, French overtures (La Ténebreuse), dance movements typical of suites and character pieces with evocative titles (Le Tic-Toc-Choc, Les Sylvains, Les Satires), descriptive (The Carrillon, L'Anguille), enigmatic (Les Barricades Mistérieuses), musical portraits (La Couperin, La Mézangère).

Herzog and Sthel perform on two historical viols, an anonymous German c.1730 and the other by Andrea Castagnery 1744.

The two Brazilian-born viol players dedicate this recording to Brazilian harpsichordist Roberto de Regina, a pioneer in the understanding and interpretation of Couperin ‘s subtle music.

“J'avoüeray de bonne foy, que j'ayme beaucoup mieux ce qui me touche, que ce qui me surprend (I will admit to good faith that I like what moves me much better than what surprises me.)" François Couperin, preface to the First Book of Harpsichord Pieces, 1713.



Listen to Couperin's Pièces a deux violes on Spotify, Deezer . YouTube and on every streaming platform.

Notes & Tracks

PHOENIX FotoAndresLacko light

 Between 1713 and 1730, François Couperin published four Livres—assembling 240 harpsichord pieces of various styles and genres grouped according to their keys into 27 ordres , so that within each ordre one could find a number of examples of the popular dances of the time, leaving to the performer the task to choose his favorite ones in the organization of a proper suite. In our program we also organized the pieces by tonalities, but the resulting suites follow the normal proximity relations of tonic/dominant or minor/major relative.

Couperin expected instruments other than the harpsichord to play his pièces, In the preface to the third book, Couperin speaks of what he calls “pièces-croisées”, to be played by two harpsichords, or by one - playing the lower line an octave down. And he says: “Pieces of this kind, actually, will be adequate for two flutes or oboes, as well as for two violins or two viols, and other unisson instruments; it is evident that those who will perform them will adapt them to their instruments: On trouvera dans ce 3me livre des piéces que je nomme Piéces-croisées . On se souviendra que dans le Second, page 62, il y en a une de cette espéce, qui a pour titre Les bagatelles; c’est précisément ce que j’apelle Piéce-croisée. Ainsi celles qui porteront ce même titre devront être jouées sur deux Claviers, dont l’un soit repoussé ou retiré. Ceux qui n’auront qu’un Clavecin à un Clavier, ou êpinéte, joueront le dessus comme il est marqué et la Basse une octave plus bas; et lorsque la Basse ne poura être portée plus bas, il faudra porter le dessus une Octave plus haut. Ces sortes de piéces, d’ailleurs, seront propres à deux Flutes ou Hautbois, ainsy que pour deux Violons, deux Violes, et autres instrumens à l’unisson; bien entendu que ceux qui les exécuteront les métront à la portée des leurs.

 

About some of the most intriguing pieces: Les Baricades Mistérieuses is indeed mysterious. With its syncopations and suspensions, some believe it hints at the stiff starched petticoats, used to arm the skirts that went over it, which formed a kind natural barricade to women's bodies. La Ménetou evokes Françoise-Charlotte de Seneterre de Mennetoud, a child prodigy who played the harpsichord and was a child prodigy, performing for the king and composing since the age of nine. La Mézangère is named for Mézangeau who was an important lute player-composer in the 17th century. D'Anglebert has a transcription of one of his sarabands that reveals quality of this composer rarely heard.  La Chazé is possibly Sister Liée Magdeleine of Sainte Elisabeth Bochart de Champigni, known as Madame de Chazé's, although there has not been positive identification so far.

 

01 Allemande: La Ténébreuse (The dark one) (3e ordre, 1713)
02 L’Arlequine (Harlequin's piece) (23e ordre, 1730)
03 La Pantomime (Pantomime) (26e ordre, 1730)
04 Le Dodo ou L’amour au Berceau (Lullaby, or love of the cradle) (15e ordre, 1722)

05 La Couperin (François Couperin's self-portrait) (21e ordre, 1730)
06 La Lutine (The elf's piece) (3e ordre, 1713)
07 Le Carillon de Cythère (The carillon of Cythera) (14e ordre, 1722)
08 Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou les Maillotins (double-headed wooden hammers) (18e ordre, 1722)
09 Les Satires, Chèvre-pieds (The satyrs, with goat-feet) (23e ordre, 1730)
10 Les Baricades Mistérieuses (The mysterious barricades) (6e ordre 1717)

11 Les Regrets (Regrets) (3e ordre, 1713)
12 Les Sylvains (The forest deities) (1e ordre 1713)
13 L'Anguille (The eel) (22e ordre, 1730)
14 La Bouffone (The comedienne) (20e ordre, 1730)

15 La Mézangère (René Mézangeau's piece) (10e ordre, 1717)
16 La Ménetou (Mlle de Ménetou's piece) (7e ordre, 1717)
17 La Chazé (Madame de Chazé's piece) (7e ordre 1717)

 

Recorded  (24 bit digital) by Eliahu Feldman at the Scottish Church, Jerusalem on 2 & 9 September 2005, 11 & 12 August 2006.
Edited by Myrna Herzog, mastered by David Feldman.
Cover design: Giomar Sthel
Photo of Giomar Sthel and Myrna Herzog by Eliahu Feldman

Review & info

In her profound review of our Couperin à deux violes, Pamela Hickman's deep and informative article adds to the  "extraordinarily rich listening experience" offered by the CD:


French Baroque music in a new light: Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel record harpsichord pieces of François Couperin on two viols

Born in Paris in 1668, François Couperin was a member of a musical dynasty, unique in France and only overshadowed in the history of music by the Bach family. Generations of Couperins held the post of organist at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris from 1653 to 1826. Although their family origins were rustic (Couperin's great-grandfather was a farmer in Brie as well as a music teacher), the Couperins were time-honoured musicians at the court of Louis XIV, serving as organists of the Chambre du Roi and, in François' case, also teaching harpsichord to the dauphin and other children of the royal family.

Couperin Tratore
François Couperin’s musical life cannot be fully understood without relating to his strong connection to the lifestyle and mannerisms of the reign of the Sun King and, most importantly, to the art of dance. The elegance of dance, grace of movement, the art of gesture and fine deportment were major emphases in the general education of the French nobility. But there are additional characteristics to Couperin’s writing that set him apart from his contemporaries. Most Baroque keyboard composers furnished their scores with minimal ornamentation, phrasing marks, tempo markings and with some hints as to interpretation, then to depend on the "good taste" of the player to guarantee a high-quality performance. Not relying on keyboard players, indeed, incensed by poor performances of his music, Couperin took to providing his harpsichord scores with punctilious markings, challenging the player to decipher them and integrate them naturally into the weave of the music. His 1716 treatise “L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin” (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) was and continues to be one of the most valuable instruction books for keyboard players.

 

Written Between 1713 and 1730, Couperin’s 27 suites, or " Ordres " as he called them, each consist of between four and 24 miniatures, their ornamentation prevailing as the core of the music, stimulating expressiveness and indicative of the gestures and mood of each piece, many of them "pièces de caractère". So unique is this repertoire that it somehow resists traditional analysis. The picturesque titles that Couperin, ever the individualist, gave the pieces have aroused much curiosity, their sketchy references, ambiguities and quizzical possibilities begging to be unravelled by players from the time they were penned.

 

So, what prompted Brazilian-born viola da gamba artists Myrna Herzog (today living in Israel) and Giomar Sthel (living in Germany) to embark on recording a number of these keyboard pieces on two viols? It was Sthel (also a keyboard player) who suggested adding three of them to a program the two artists were preparing for performance in Germany. The artists liked the pieces so much that they were motivated to put together a whole program comprising movements from the ordres. Indeed, in his preface to Book 3, Couperin encourages the playing of them on various instruments, even offering advice as to how to adapt them to specific instruments. He writes “Pieces of this kind, actually, will be suited to two flutes or oboes, to two violins or two viols, as well as to other unison instruments; it is evident that those who perform them will adapt them to their instruments.” Herzog and Sthel went ahead to perform complete programs of them in German churches and also in small venues in Israel, recording them a year later at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem (recording: Eliahu Feldman, mastering: David Feldman; Herzog herself edited out some street noise.) Apart from transposing some of the pieces and a changed octave here and there, the artists make no changes to the musical texts. On this recording, both play historic, 7-stringed viols. Due to the more penetrating, treble-like timbre of the early 18th century German instrument she plays here (maker unknown), Herzog performs the upper line in all pieces except for on track 4, with Sthel taking the lower line on a 1744 Castagneri instrument, their choice of two different viols highlighting the beauty and distinctive timbres of two different schools of instrument-makers.

 

Some of the pieces offer allusive, albeit seductive “portraits” of ladies at court; the manner in which each lady moves in the ballroom becomes almost visual in each vignette. “La Ménetou” refers to a truly gifted young woman - Françoise-Charlotte de Seneterre de Mennetoud (b.1680) - a child prodigy on the harpsichord; she composed music from the age of nine and is said to have performed for the king himself. Engaging freely in notes inégales and style luthé (lute style) or brisé (broken style, i.e. of never playing the melody notes and those of the bass or of the middle voices quite together) Herzog and Sthel’s reading of the piece, with its long, expressive melodic lines, suggests a lady of tranquil and mysterious independence, the middle section offering her the chance to show her prowess on the dance floor. It is thought that “La Chazé” is a description of Sister Liée Magdeleine of Sainte Elisabeth Bochart de Champigni; whether or not, Herzog and Sthel sweep her and the listener into a hearty, triple-time dance - perhaps a passepied, this dance introduced (now changed to a dance in triple time) to the court at the time of Louis XIV. Then there is “La Couperin” - François Couperin’s self-portrait. A thoughtful piece, coloured by chromatic moments, it is tinged with Couperin’s characteristic melancholy. The artists’ sympathetic, wistful rendition of it uses effective use of legato bowing as against amusing, non-legato textures, the latter perhaps evoking the composer himself pacing energetically through the opulent halls of the Palace of Versailles.

 

Some of the pieces reflect Couperin’s tender sympathy for everyday life and his understanding that the simple and the serious can easily coexist in one style. Such is “Le Carillon de Cythère”, describing the bell-ringing from a church on Kythera, an island located between the Greek mainland and Crete. Playing “Les Regrets”, appropriately set in the key of C minor, Herzog and Sthel invite the listener to be part of the crestfallen mood of the piece, as they pace it carefully in playing that is sincere, introspective and unmannered. Tragic and grand at the same time, “La Ténébreuse” (The Dark One), possibly written after the death of one of the French princes, is a dark, melancholic tombeau. Then there are the two rondeaus that make up “Le Dodo” ou “L'Amour au Berceau” (The Dodo, or Love in a Cradle), the lullaby, with its wavelike motion representing the rocking of a cradle, so soothing, almost mesmerising under the fingers of Herzog and Sthel. It is only in this piece that we hear Sthel on the upper part; in the opening phrase, a “tremblement” (trill) he plays produces an astounding dissonance, its minor-major mix sounding much like a cluster! And, being a rondeau, it recurs several times. Indeed, this effect emerges more boldly on bowed instruments than on the harpsichord.

With echoes from the commedia dell’arte, we hear Couperin’s “L’Arlequine” (The Harlequin’s Piece) a movement in a marked and stylized triple rhythm. Herzog and Sthel portray the comic servant character with empathy, allowing the piece’s quirky rhythmic surprises and hemiolas to give expression to the composer’s performance direction of “Grotesquement”. And, in keeping with Le Theatre Italien, a genre enjoying great popularity in the 1720s, there is Couperin’s “La Pantomime”, a colourful portrayal of actor Tiberio Florilli, also known as “Scaramouche”, the most famous actor of his time of the Commedia dell’Arte and a star in Paris of the Italian Troupe. The piece is performed here with “une grande precision”, some lighter textures punctuating its noble agenda. As to “La Lutine” (The Elf), a whimsical, carefree miniature perfect in construction but over in the blink of an eye, this represents the character of a goblin introduced into theatrical performances of the time to add an element of light-hearted entertainment.

It is clear that Couperin’s descriptive pieces serve to fire the performing artist’s imagination. Herzog and Sthel’s effervescent and nuanced dialogue in “L’Anguille” (The Eel) evokes a vivid picture of the eel’s erratic movements and, perhaps, the stirring of the water as well. But it is those pieces bearing the more obscure titles that challenge players and listeners alike, transporting them into the world of boundless imagination. Take, for example, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins”, published in 1722 in Book 3. The Maillot were a famous family of rope-dancers. According to Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel, “Tic-toc” is an onomatopoeic term suggesting a “beating, a reiterated movement, a pulse that beats, a horse that walks, the pendulum of a clock or a hammer that knocks.” Herzog and Sthel give expression to this vivid perpetuum mobile, its unbridled energy and joy, at the same time, taking the listener through its harmonic development and melodic comments. “Les satires chèvre-pieds'' (ordre Mo.23) refers to goat-footed satyrs. Depicting the sylvan deity from Greek mythology that bears certain characteristics of a horse or goat and engages in Dionysian revelry, Herzog and Sthel set before the listener an image of this peculiar, grotesque figure in a clumsy, heavy, somewhat off-centre dance, their playing of the second half suggesting that the creature is not devoid of endearing qualities.

As performers and interpreters of French music, Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel display astounding musical rapport. They probe each of the Pièces de Clavecin here in depth, providing fascinating insight into the musical world of Couperin le Grand, its innate lyricism and elegance, its  intensity, its wit and charm, its nobility of sentiment, its theatre influences, its fantasy and into that elusive “esprit d'élégie” that so often pervades Couperin’s music. Enlisting the viola da gamba’s plethora of expressive, coloristic and textual possibilities, the artists' playing of these musical jewels offers an extraordinarily rich listening experience. Add to that the collection's true, high-quality recording sound. As yet, “François Couperin, Pièces de clavecin à deux violes” has not been issued as a CD, but it is available on all the current digital platforms. 

Posted by Pamela Hickman