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Reviewing the original release of this recording in 1984.
The Couperin set, let me say
almost right away, is an absolute must for any devotee of the composer. It
ranks with the Pro Arte releases of the Concerts royaux and Nouveaux
concerts by the Kuijkens et al. as the very pinnacle of achievement in the
French Baroque chamber music discography, and I'd expect to be mentioning it
again when Top Five time rolls around once more in our November issue.
Astrée, as you may know, has been promising for several years to offer a
complete Couperin on 30 discs, the project to have been finished by 1983 in
honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. Thus far, however,
the only other disc of the chamber pieces to have reached here is the superb
Pièces de violes, also featuring gambist Savall, for me the premier player
of his instrument in our day. The current disc only reinforces one's desire
to hear Savall and associates approach the Concerts so ably interpreted by
the Kuijkens. In a sense, comparison between the Hesperion XX and Quadro
Amsterdam Nations may offer a preview of that competition, since the
Kuijkens are of the same school as the members of the Dutch consort (Brüggen,
Bylsma, Leonhardt, and Schröder), tending to emphasize the chastity and
reticence of the delicate material, and doing so with enormous success.
But the Hesperion XX release
is a revelation, and however happy one is with the earlier recording I
strongly recommend purchase. The character of leader Savall permeates the
accounts—his passion, intensity, and abiding sense of drama. His efforts to
convey those qualities in the ordres are facilitated by the larger
complement of players at his disposal, Savall having enlisted the aid of an
additional pair of oboes and bassoon, with a theorbo added to the continuo.
The variety thus provided is totally engrossing.
The Nations represents
Couperin le Grand's last published attempt at the fusion of French and
Italian styles that preoccupied him during the latter half of his life. The
structure of the ordres, therefore, is an interesting hybrid, with opening
sonatas followed by more or less traditional French suites of dances. But
the two goûts are compounded as well as structurally mixed, and the
grandiloquence of the French overture tradition is evident in the grave
openings of the sonatas—more so than ever in the Savall accounts, which at
times approach orchestral expansiveness. On the other hand, the Italianate
sweetness and light of the more lyrical sections are delivered with great
plaintiveness, as opposed to the affecting understatement of the Quadro
Amsterdam accounts. In short, the two recordings provide wonderful
complements to one another. Hear both, definitely, but if you must have only
one let it be the Savall.
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