Jos Van Immerseel Le clavecin à Paris au XVIIIe siècle Channel Classics

Le clavecin à Paris au XVIIIe siècle
Jos Van Immerseel (harpsichord)
rec. 2022/23, Philharmonie de Paris, France
Reviewed as a stereo 24/44 download from Outhere
Channel Classics CCS45523 [162]

During most of the 1600s, the lute was the most revered instrument in France. This changed towards the end of the century, when it was gradually overshadowed by the harpsichord. Jacques Champion de Chambonnières is generally considered to be the father of the French harpsichord school. Its heyday was during the last stages of the reign of Louis XIV and his successors, and it continued to flourish until the last quarter of the 18th century, when it faced increasing competition from the fortepiano.

The main composers of harpsichord music in the 18th century are well represented on disc. From that perspective, the production under review here has nothing new to offer. In recent years, several recordings of music by lesser-known composers have been released; for instance, by Brilliant Classics. Jos Van Immerseel decided to stay on the trodden paths. This should not be interpreted as criticism; it was his aim to demonstrate the development of harpsichord music with the assistance of three historical instruments that reflect the change in aesthetics.

The first disc focuses on two of the greatest composers of harpsichord music from the first quarter of the 18th century. Louis Marchand was born in Lyon, and was in Paris at least from 1689. There, he held several positions as organist. In 1706 he was appointed organist of the Chapelle Royale, as successor to Guillaume Gabriel Nivers. He was highly respected as a musician and teacher, but far less as a person. He soon acquired the reputation of being a difficult character, who didn’t hesitate to manipulate people to boost his career. A large part of his oeuvre has been lost. The fact that he was a brilliant keyboard player makes it all the more regrettable that his extant oeuvre in this department is so small; apart from a book of organ music, only two books of harpsichord pieces have come down to us, and each of them includes just one suite. In addition, three separate pieces have been preserved in manuscript. The Suite in D minor, taken from the first book of 1699, comprises nine pieces; Van Immerseel selected six of them, opening with the prélude and closing with a magnificent chaconne. Marchand was one of the first who published books with harpsichord pieces; stylistically he is rather close to the preceding century, and the sound of the viola da gamba. The fact that both suites open with a prélude non mesuré – which was the standard in the 17th century – and continue with a series of dances, attests to that.

In the next decade a number of composers published books with harpsichord pieces, such as Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Jean-François Dandrieu and Gaspard Le Roux. In 1713 François Couperin published his first book, which was to be followed by three further collections. He is considered one of the first representatives of what is known as the rococo. Lightness and grace are its main features, and Couperin’s harpsichord music is a musical demonstration of that style. A major feature of his œuvre is the shift from the dance to the character piece. That is to say he still writes dances, but most of them come with a title, indicating the most important feature of a piece. In the fourth book, hardly a dance can be found. Van Immerseel demonstrates the early stages of harpsichord composing in the 18th century with selections from two of the ordres (suites) in the first book. Only one of the eight pieces he has selected has no additional title. Even the chaconne from the 3e Ordre has a title: La Favorite. It is the only chaconne in his four harpsichord books, which is remarkable, given the importance of this form in France.

The harpsichord works by Jean-Philippe Rameau are rather well-known, often played and recorded. They won’t surprise many listeners, but if one has just heard Couperin and then goes to the second disc, which opens with an Allemande by Rameau, taken from his Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin of 1728, one may experience a kind of shock, which shows that it makes sense to put them together in one recording. Rameau’s music is dramatic and theatrical, and although his first opera received its premiere in 1733, there can be no doubt that he was a man of the stage. It is no surprise that he later orchestrated some of his harpsichord pieces and included them in his operas. Les Sauvages is a clear specimen of Rameau’s theatrical leanings, whereas L’enharmonique can be connected to his interest in harmony. In 1722 he had published a theoretical work on this subject: Traité de l’harmonie reduite à ses principes naturels.

Forqueray is one of the best-known names in music history. Antoine was generally considered one of the greatest viola da gamba players of his time, and today his music ranks among the best for the instrument – that is to say, if the five suites which were published by his son Jean-Baptiste are indeed from his pen. With that, we come to what is one of music history’s mysteries. The relationship between father and son was pretty bad. By all accounts, Antoine was a difficult character. After a long legal battle, he and his wife separated in 1711. He had taught his son to play the viola da gamba; apparently he was jealous of Jean-Baptiste’s skills and had him incarcerated in 1715. Ten years later, he had him banished from the kingdom, and it was only due to the influence of Jean-Baptiste’s pupils that the sentence was revoked. It is significant that none of the family attended Antoine’s funeral.That troublesome relationship has raised questions about Antoine’s authorship of the pieces which Jean-Baptiste published in 1747 in two versions: one for viola da gamba and basso continuo, the other for harpsichord solo. Three pieces were explicitly added as having been written by Jean-Baptiste himself, but all the others he claimed to be by his father. It is hard to imagine that a man, who had suffered so much from his father’s cruelty, wished “to assure him immortality”, as he stated in the dedication of the edition to his royal pupil Madame Henriette de France. The problem of the authorship of the five suites will probably never be solved.

Van Immerseel has selected five pieces from the six that constitute the 1e Suite and five from the seven in the 5e Suite. The origin as pieces for viola da gamba explains that they move mostly in the middle and lower range of the keyboard. Another feature is what one may call ‘hidden dynamics’: notes or groups of notes that may have been played forte on the viola da gamba, which the harpsichord can’t realise, but only suggest. All the pieces are character pieces; the most disturbing of them is the last, Jupiter, also the last piece in the collection. It makes one understand why a contemporary said that Forqueray played like the devil (in contrast to Marin Marais, who should have played like an angel). Forqueray was strongly influenced by the Italian style, and that is demonstrated in these pieces.

The third disc brings us to the later stages in the history of the harpsichord in France. Jacques Duphly was born in Rouen and was educated by the Cathedral’s organist François d’Agincourt. In 1732 he became organist of the Cathedral in Evreux, and moved to Saint-Eloi in Rouen two years later. In 1740 he was appointed organist of Notre-Dame-de-la-Ronde in the same town, but left his job two years later. He settled in Paris where he concentrated on the harpsichord. There is no sign of his taking any official job. He probably made a living as a teacher among the upper echelons of society. Contemporaries state that he was one of the greatest keyboard players of his time, alongside Rameau and Balbastre. In the last decades of his life, he led a more or less secluded life and was soon almost forgotten.

Four books with harpsichord pieces were printed between 1744 and 1768. Van Immerseel has selected pieces from the last two, dating from 1758 and 1768, respectively. The former includes nine character pieces, two pairs of minuets and a chaconne; the latter is included here. From the fourth book we hear two of the six pieces; all are character pieces. A modern trait is the Alberti bass in La Drummond; that was a frequently-used accompaniment figure in music written in the galant idiom. Another popular composition technique was the rondeau, which Duphly uses in La Pothouin. In La Forqueray the composer’s skills on the viola da gamba are effectively portrayed through the low tessitura.

Like Duphly, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was educated as an organist. He was born in Dijon and received lessons from Claude Rameau, Jean-Philippe’s younger brother. Later he succeeded him as organist of Saint-Etienne in Dijon. In 1750 he settled in Paris where he took composition lessons from Jean-Philippe. In 1759 the first book with harpsichord pieces was printed; it is the only of its kind which has come down to us. In 1770 a collection of four suites of Noëls for harpsichord or organ was printed, and in 1779 a set of quartets for keyboard and instruments. It is known that in later years he often improvised at the organ, and even in church played opera transcriptions. This has contributed to the not-always-positive reception of his œuvre. He is often considered a representative of the decline of the French harpsichord school. The harpsichord pieces published in 1759 certainly give reason for that; some tend to be a little trivial and too much focussed on virtuosity. To what extent one appreciates his music is probably a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer Duphly over Balbastre any time, but there are certainly also pieces which are very enjoyable. Van Immerseel has selected six pieces, which are generally pleasant. The exception, as far as I am concerned, is the last: the air gay is largely dominated by a drone in the left hand, and having heard it I don’t need to hear it again. La Malesherbe, on the other hand, is a very nice piece, with some unmistakable Mozartian traces.

The disc ends with another Couperin: Armand Louis. He was the grandson of François’ uncle Louis. When his father Nicolas died, he took over his position as organist of St Gervais. His harpsichord pieces show the changes in the musical fashion during the mid-18th century. His character pieces are more exuberant and more demonstratively brilliant than François’ ordres. That sometimes can lead to a little superficiality and lack of substance. That does not go for L’affligée, which is the musical depiction of an afflicted person, and Couperin’s piece is quite touching.

In recent decades, Jos Van Immerseel has become known as a performer on the fortepiano and as conductor of his orchestra Anima Eterna, which focuses on repertoire from the classical period to the early 20th century on period instruments. However, he started his career as a harpsichordist, and has made several discs with harpsichord music, including French repertoire. He is now 78, and returned to the harpsichord and French music for this project. Although the composers are rather well-known and their music is available on disc, it seems useful to present a survey of the development of the French harpsichord school. That is also thanks to the three splendid historical instruments Van Immerseel is playing here, each of which perfectly suits the music in which it is used. The difference between the first and the second is particularly striking. On the first disc Van Immerseel plays an instrument by Jean-Henry Hemsch, with a sweet and balanced sound, which suits Marchand and Couperin perfectly. Rameau in particular profits from the strong and almost aggressive sound of a Ruckers harpsichord of 1646, which has been the subject of a typical French procedure, known as ravalement: the alteration and extension of the disposition and range of keyboard instruments. In this case the ravalement took place as late as 1780, and with it Pascal Taskin tried to make it competitive with the new fortepiano. The third harpsichord is an instrument by Jean-Claude Goujon (1749), which was extended by Jacques Joachim Swanen in 1784.

In his performances Van Immerseel effectively uses their features, which I largely enjoy. I was a little surprised that in the most theatrical pieces, those by Rameau, he is rather restrained – for instance in the choice of tempi. However, the interpreter has much freedom, and Van Immerseel defends his approach convincingly. His ornamentation is always appropriate, and not exaggerated; his addition of notes inégales has the subtlety one expects from a performer who puts the music in the centre and wants to do justice to the style of the time. There are some wonderful examples of the use of rubato as well.

Even if you have all the pieces included here in your collection, if you love the (French) harpsichord, you should add this set. It offers an interesting and compelling survey of French harpsichord composing and harpsichord making in the 18th century.

Johan van Veen

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CD 1
Louis Marchand (1669-1732)
[Premier Livre, 1702]
Suite in D minor:

François Couperin (1668-1733
[Premier Livre, 1713]
1er Ordre in G minor:
allemande L’Auguste
sarabande La majestueuse
La Milordine. gigue
Les Silvains
3e Ordre in C minor:
La Ténébreuse. allemande
chaconne à deux temps. La Favorite
La Lutine

CD 2
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
[Nouvelles Suites de Clavecin, 1728]
Les sauvages

Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) / Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray (1699-1782)
[Pièces de Viole mises en Pièces de Clavecin par Mr. Forqueray le Fils, 1747]
1e Suite in D minor:
allemande La Laborde
La Cottin
La Bellmont
La Portugaise
La Couperin
5e Suite in C minor:
La Rameau
La Guignon
La Boisson
La Sylva

CD 3
Jacques Duphly (1715-1789)
[Troisième Livre, 1758]
La de Belombre
La Forqueray
[Quatrième Livre, 1768]
La Pothouin
La de Drummond

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1724-1799)
[Pièces de Clavecin, 1759]
La de Caze
La Lugeac
La D’Héricourt
La Castelmore
La Malesherbe
air gay

Armand Louis Couperin (1727-1789)