June 18, 2020
(++++) USES OF THE PAST
Couperin: Suites (Ordres) Nos. 6, 7 and 8 for Harpsichord. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16.
Caroline Shaw: Is a Rose; The Listeners. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Avery Amereau, contralto; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $20.
Cedille has put forward a clear two-word answer to the ongoing question of whether Baroque keyboard music is best played on the instruments for which it was written or is equally worthwhile when heard on a modern piano. The answer is: Jory Vinikour. The excellence of Vinikour’s performance of three of the 27 harpsichord suites by François Couperin “le Grand,” the alternating episodes of splendor and intimacy, the unerring connection between performer and instrument and, thus, between performer-plus-instrument and audience, all make this release into unarguable proof that this music should be heard as it was intended to be heard, and played on the instrument for which it was created. “Unarguable” or not, of course this excellent CD will not lay to rest the long-running, well, argument about Baroque music, which nowadays is often designated as being “for keyboard” to avoid the uncomfortable (to some) reality that it is no more “for keyboard” than, say, Brahms’ piano concertos are “for keyboard.” Leaving aside this continuing dispute – for this is scarcely an argumentative release: it is simply a tremendously convincing one – there is no question about the excellence of Vinikour’s playing and his understanding of Couperin (1668-1733) and the French style of his suites (which Couperin called ordres). These works were published in volumes dated 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730, with the sixth, seventh and eight leading off the second book. It is a shame that even many people who enjoy Baroque harpsichord music are less familiar with Couperin than with Bach: indeed, Couperin’s name is best-known to some listeners through Ravel’s piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), which uses the movements of a Baroque suite to pay tribute to friends of Ravel who had died during World War I. Couperin’s own music really deserves to be better-known, not only for its inherent excellence but also for its fascinating approach to the concept of a suite. Couperin does adhere to the basic idea of a sequence of dance movements, but he does not open any of his suites with an “Overture” and does not confine the works’ movements to dance forms for their own sake. Instead, he intersperses dances with character pieces that are cleverly conceived and delightfully reflective of their titles. The eight-movement sixth suite, for example, includes Le Gazouillement, which translates as “twitter” and features very considerable ornamentation whose reflection of birdsong is apparent. And that suite concludes with Le Moucheron, “the gnat,” whose irregular rhythm delightfully reflects an annoying little flying insect. The seventh suite, also in eight movements, includes four movements called Les Petits Ages (“the little ages”) that start with La Muse Naissante (“birth of the muse”), continue with L’Enfantine (“the child”) and L’Adolescente (“the adolescent”), then move on to Les Délices (“delicacies”). These are beautifully contrasted movements that invite listeners to imagine their titles’ connections to the music in addition to inviting the harpsichordist to decide how best to color the music so as to bring out each piece’s unique approach. The eighth suite contains 10 movements and, unlike the sixth and seventh, often (although not always) simply gives dance titles to each piece – Courante, Gavotte, Rondeau, Gigue, etc. But Couperin has his own, French-accented way of handling these forms that differs substantially from that of Bach and other German composers. The two Courantes, for example, are so strongly contrasted in mood and ornamentation that they scarcely seem to be the same underlying dance. And the Sarabande l’Unique does have an unusual (if not really unique) approach to the dance’s characteristic warmth and slow pacing. Vinikour’s exceptional performances fully plumb the intricacies of the wonderful miniatures that make up these suites, bringing forth emotions that clearly vary from the bright and happy to the inward-looking and darker – all with a comprehensive understanding of period style and an elegance of presentation that brings forth additional nuances on each hearing. This disc may not lay to rest all controversies about instrumental appropriateness for Baroque keyboard works – but it is hard to imagine wanting to hear these Couperin suites on anything but a harpsichord after listening to the way Vinikour makes it clear how intimately the music’s communicative potential is bound up with its performance on the instrument for which it was created.
One of the many pleasant elements of the Vinikour release is that it does not “celebrity-ize” the performer: as good as Vinikour is, he stays focused on the music, not on display for its own sake; and Cedille’s packaging also makes it clear that this recording is far more about Couperin than it is about someone interpreting Couperin’s music. Matters are quite different, rather surprisingly so, on a (+++) new recording from the excellent Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, on its own label. This features Baroque and post-Baroque music rethought, reconsidered, and in some senses (although not that of piano-vs.-harpsichord) brought “up to date.” The release bears the title “PBO & Caroline Shaw,” which is displayed on both the front and the back, and a would-be purchaser would search in vain on either of those sides for exactly what is performed here: neither of the actual pieces by Shaw is even mentioned on the packaging. There are, however, four photos of “stars” of the recording, including Shaw – attention is demonstrably being given to the people involved in the production more than to the music. And that is a shame, since the music has much to recommend it. The concept is intriguing: PBO, an original-instrument orchestra, collaborated with Shaw for the creation of contemporary music that is designed for PBO instruments and takes advantage of their sonorities and the particular quirks involved in playing them. Thus we get Is a Rose, a three-song cycle written for and sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, which includes poetry from both the 18th century and the 21st. The attempted interconnection is obvious; how well it works is a matter of opinion. Certainly Shaw, herself a professional vocalist (and violinist), knows what she wants from the mezzo-soprano voice and the instruments accompanying it. And certainly she knows where to go to get what she seeks: The Edge (2017) uses words by contemporary poet Jacob Polley (born 1975), while And So (2019) uses Shaw’s own words, and Red Red Rose (2016) uses Robert Burns’ famous Scottish verse from the 18th century while treating it in a distinctly (although not always distinctively) modern way. The writing for orchestra is assured, and the vocals show a clear understanding of effective use of the voice. But the work is underwhelming: its expressiveness is more gestural than heartfelt, its concerns rather sophomoric (“will we still sing of roses?”), and its preoccupation seems more with words as building blocks than with them as communicators of meaning. In these respects it shares some of the characteristics of The Listeners, a longer and more-elaborate work – for soloists, chorus and orchestra – that Shaw deems an oratorio. It is loosely based on – or, more accurately, reactive to – the continuing journey through outer space of the Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977 and that carry recordings of music and words (plus photographs) intended to be used in any potential alien encounter to explain about Earth. Shaw put together her own libretto for The Listeners, whose opening and closing focus on the Spanish word brillas (“you shine,” although why Spanish is used is not clear, since the work is otherwise in English). Shaw certainly knows her musical techniques: vocalise, choral and solo presentations, sinfonia, minimalism, chromaticism, ornamentation, and even some straightforward narration find their way into The Listeners. The poetry of Walt Whitman is juxtaposed with that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson – and that of William Drummond (1585-1649) and Yesenia Montilla (a 21st-century poet who does not reveal her birth year, which is around 1988). A snippet of commentary by Carl Sagan pops in at one point and actually provides some respite from the broad but rather unfocused material that has preceded it. The instrumental sinfonia, placed next-to-last in the 10 movements, seems intended, along with the concluding epilogue, to pull listeners outward into space alongside the voyaging Voyagers. But it is all so contrived, scaled so cleverly but with so little sense of emotional commitment – much less a sense of wonder – that the entire oratorio is far less evocative of a mystical-and-hopeful outward journey than, say, “Neptune” from Holst’s The Planets (1914-16). The performances, vocal and instrumental, are first-rate, and listeners who find the basic idea of 21st-century creativity brought to bear on instruments designed for the 17th and 18th will surely be intrigued by Shaw’s work in both The Listeners and Is a Rose. But the focus of both pieces does seem to be more on Shaw herself, and the performers putting across her ideation, than on any sort of musical experience: this is material that is intellectually exciting but emotionally unconvincing. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has elsewhere shown its creativity again and again when performing works of the past. For these works of the present, it takes something of a back seat in presenting pieces that seem to be thought experiments rather than emotive expressions taking advantage of the PBO’s special capabilities.