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Reviewing the new Denis Herlin edition of the Second Livre of Pièces de Clavecin by François Couperin ‘le grand’ (1668-1733) when it was published by Bärenreiter back in 2019, I concluded:
Occasionally I receive for review a volume that is, quite simply, above any reproach. This is one such edition. For any harpsichord player, this must surely be an essential and immediate purchase; for pianists keen to explore this too-little-known keyboard repertoire, this new edition must also be the one to seek out and highly prize.
Three years later, and the next volume of this incomparable benchmark edition has appeared, and once again I have no hesitation in lavishing it with praise…
The Troisième Livre (1722)
From his appointment as organiste du roi in 1693, François Couperin’s career and standing at the court of the “Sun King” Louis XIV rapidly ascended, the young composer dazzling with music that introduced a distinct Italian influence to the music of the mature French baroque.
Couperin ‘le grand’ left us more than 220 keyboard pieces, published in four Livres (books) in 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730. Each includes several suites of pieces, which Couperin called Ordres. The Troisième Livre includes seven Ordres, numbers 13-19.
Like Bach’s well-known Suites and Partitas, these Ordres comprised numerous short movements; unlike Bach’s works however, and unlike Couperin’s French predecessors, the pieces mostly have descriptive titles rather than generic dance assignations. Some are named after individuals, while others are tableaux portraying a range of other subjects.
The titles are as evocative as they are discursive; here’s a very few examples from the 43 colourful titles included:
- The soul in torment
- Ardour under the crimson domino mask
- The Jolly Limping Fellow
- Vestal Virgins
- Flowering Orchards
- The Odd Body
- Distant jealousy under the dark grey domino mask
In his academically significant Preface to this new edition, Herlin notes that Couperin’s break with the formularised dance-suite approach of earlier clavecinists has its counterpart in the fourth book of Pièces de violes (1717) by Marin Marais. He goes on to underline Couperin’s significance, however, with this quote from David Fuller:
“With his revolutionary new style, Couperin invented a musical language of immense variety, flexibility and refinement, whose purpose was to illustrate not only actions and emotions but also personalities, ideas, and social attitudes.”
This is revolutionary indeed, positioning Couperin as an antecedent for musical developments that would not fully flower until more than a century later.
4 Concerts Royaux
Also included in this new edition, as originally intended by the composer, Couperin’s Concerts Royaux are more frequently performed as chamber works.
According to the composer:
“The following pieces are different in kind from those I have published up until now. They may be played not only on the harpsichord, but also on the violin, the flute, the oboe, the viol and the bassoon. I have composed them for small chamber music concerts of the sort that Louis XIV had me prepare on almost every Sunday of the year.”
In contrast to the seven Ordres that precede the Concerts Royaux, these works follow the more traditional dance-suite pattern, comprising Prélude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and more lively concluding dances.
Some of the movements are presented in classic keyboard format across two staves, but with figured bass indicated throughout, allowing scope for larger groups of players. Others appear in trio sonata format, meaning across three staves including figured bass.
Currently in preparation, Bärenreiter edition BA11844 will provide a separate edition drawn from this one, offering a performance score and set of (two) individual parts.
The New Edition
According to publishers Bärenreiter,
“For this new Urtext edition, for the first time, Herlin has evaluated the many reprints of the original edition, most of which he unearthed himself in international libraries. All variants are meticulously recorded in the Critical Commentary.
The comprehensive edition contains an extensive Introduction, notes on historical performance practice and a glossary as well as numerous facsimile illustrations. The engraving preserves essential characteristics of the original print while largely dispensing with page-turns.”
In terms of this last point, the avoidance of page turns is not merely of practical benefit, but of historical interest: Herlin’s Preface includes a detailed account and analysis of the original engraving of the Troisième Livre, noting Couperin’s determined avoidance of page turns.
Preceding the 115 pages of music and subsequent, extensive appendices, Herlin’s Preface appears in both French and English. He once again thoroughly covers the immediate historical and biographical background, the genesis of the original 1722 publication, its reception, the structure and genre of the music, as well as including an authoritative introduction to the historical performance practices associated with the music.
These include tempo markings, ornamentation, and a consideration of the instruments of the time. To supplement this there is an extensive glossary of Couperin’s performance directions, a detailed explanation of embellishments and their signs, a hugely useful glossary of all French terms and their translations, as well as translations of all the piece titles.
At the rear of the book, there is an Appendix further illustrating ornaments with Couperin’s published table. Naturally, there is also a very extensive Critical Commentary covering the extant sources upon which Herlin based his edition, and dealing with all aspects of its preparation.
Images of the original manuscripts and editions pepper the presentation throughout, adding further insight and depth to the publication.
Appearing in Bärenreiter’s house style, the soft-covered book is beautifully presented on cream paper, with notation spaciously engraved. Fingering is not included, but here left to the performer.
This edition undoubtedly once again sets a new benchmark in terms of Couperin scholarship, joining the first two Livres as an essential library edition for all enthusiasts of the French baroque.
The publication is equally the ideal performing edition for those approaching this music today, whether on the harpsichord or piano.
In short, this very special publication is a truly stunning and exemplary edition in every sense.
Also available • Andrew’s essential handbook:
How to Practise Music
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