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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Naxos 8573347

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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins


François Couperin never did anything by halves; he was either all in or all out. He showed no interest in composing operas or orchestral works, but when it came to keyboard music his four books of harpsichord pieces, published under the collective title Pièces pour clavecin, contain a total of 226 numbers. In the realm of chamber music, Les Nations was a similarly ambitious undertaking.

Couperin’s stated purpose in composing Les Nations was to “unite the nations,” by which he meant the two dominant national spheres of musical influence of his day, Italy and France. To that end, he crafted four sizeable chamber works (ordres), each beginning with a multi-movement da camera-type Italian-style sonata, which he then followed with a large-scale French dance suite ranging from six to nine movements and lasting over half an hour apiece.

The theme of uniting the national aesthetics—the goûts réunis—is further reflected in the titling of each of the ordres: La Françoise, L’Espagnole, L’Impériale, and La Piémontoise. In each case, Couperin works allusions to those national cultures into the music—for example, the flamenco-like mid-section in Spain’s concluding Passacaille movement, or the Chaconne in L’Imperiale, which seems to acknowledge Bach. Les Nations is not to be confused, however, with the composer’s 1724 Nouveaux Concerts, subtitled “Les Goûts réunis,” which was also intended to reunite the French and Italian tastes.

Headed up by renowned Baroque violinist Monica Huggett, the Juilliard Baroque, founded in 2009, brings together some of the world’s most respected and accomplished period instrument specialists, who constitute the faculty ensemble of Juilliard Historical Performance, the schoolʼs graduate degree program in period instrument performance.

Over the years Couperin’s Les Nations has received a number of excellent complete recordings. Versions by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX on Astrée and by Musica Antiqua Köln on Archiv were reviewed just two issues apart by Edward Strickland in 7:6 and 8:2. Next came a performance by the European Baroque Soloists on Denon, reviewed in 14:2 by Tom Moore. Then, much more recently, we’ve had versions from Les Ombres, reviewed by Barry Brenesal in 36:4, and one issue later (36:5) from Musica ad Rhenum on Brilliant Classics, reviewed by Bertil van Boer. I’m sure there have been others as well, but I have only the Savall as a basis for comparison with this new one by the Juilliard Baroque players.

I’ve always liked Savall’s suave manner and approach to period instrument performance. I have not, however, always cared for Monica Huggett’s somewhat astringent violin tone; and therein is both an interesting difference and similarity between these two versions. Huggett was the principal violinist for Savall’s recording in 1983, and she’s the principal violinist for this new 2013 recording with the Juilliard Baroque. The two ensembles are almost identical in makeup, the Juilliard adding only a Baroque guitar alongside the theorbo and harpsichord to the continuo mix. Otherwise both groups consist of flute, oboe, bassoon, viola da gamba, and two violins. Yet, for some reason, Savall’s Hesperion XX sounds larger or fuller, and the playing sounds more orchestrally conceived. Huggett’s violin is more integrated into Savall’s ensemble than it is in the Juilliard Baroque’s.

Some of that, of course, may be attributable to Naxos’s much newer recording, which has better definition and presents the instruments with greater clarity. Still, listening to the current version, one is more keenly aware of the individual instruments’ voices and their heterogeneity. Savall’s Hesperion XX presents a more blended, homogeneous sound. Ultimately, it will come down to a matter of the listener’s taste. If some of what you like about period instrument performances is the “organic” sound, untreated by the pesticides of vibrato and other tonal refinements, you may well prefer the Juilliard Baroque over Hesperion XX, and definitely over the European Baroque Soloists, whose version, according to Tom Moore, is realized on modern instruments.

Whatever your particular inclinations may be, Couperin’s Les Nations is a significant milestone in the composer’s output and in the history of French Baroque chamber music which belongs in every serious collector’s library. If you’re not familiar with the work, Naxos’s budget price is an affordable way to discover it, and the performance, though a little raw at times, is a very good one.

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