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GRAMOPHONE (09/2023)
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Brilliant Classics

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Reviewer :
Philip Kennicott

With this recording of the complete harpsichord works of Louis Couperin, we can safely retire the usual introduction to the composer as one of the great, sadly neglected masters of 17th-century French keyboard music. The neglect has been remedied not just by an abundance of recordings, including complete or substantial extracts by many of the major harpsichordists of the last half a century, but by the particular passion of several recent efforts. Richard Egarr’s 2011 edition of the complete Pièces de clavecin came with a bold claim, which many lovers of this music would happily second: ‘I would argue that he was the greatest of the Couperins, and the greatest composer for the harpsichord of all time.’ Massimo Berghella’s most recent foray, on five discs, is for the super-budget label Brilliant Classics, and the price for a complete account of this oeuvre is hard to beat. Berghella is an attentive artist, and he revels in the detail of the music, especially the piquant passing dissonances and surprise harmonic inflections that connect Couperin to JJ Froberger, whom the composer met in Paris around 1652. Berghella’s ornamentation sometimes lacks fluidity and suppleness but his organisation of the music is compelling. Couperin’s harpsichord music is clustered around the 16 unmeasured Preludes, which serve as grand, free-ranging introductions to suites in the same keys compiled at will by the performer from the some 120 miscellaneous extant works. Berghella’s choices in this are satisfying and sensible.


Unfortunately, his readings are sensible without being entirely satisfying. There is a tendency to a microscopic level of engagement without a larger sense of sweep and drama. Christoph Rousset’s magisterial F major unmeasured Prelude (No 13) has an elasticity and drama that Berghella’s more rhythmically foursquare version lacks. Berghella’s tempos can be deliberate even to the point of severity. Egarr’s light reading of the Gavotte in C (with double by Couperin) is light, fleet and whimsical, while Berghella in this and other smaller dances tends to get the details right without catching the spirit of the piece.


Another issue, and more a question of taste, is the timbre of the instrument. Berghella uses a 2018 copy of 1681 instrument by Vincent Thibaut, but it lacks warmth and plangency in the bass.


The tuning is spicy and appropriate to the music, and I sometimes wondered if Berghella revelled so much in the nasal richness of the sound that he lost sight of the forest for the trees.

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