Friday 20 August 2021

Chamber music for the King: François Couperin's Concerts royaux from American flautist Stephen Schultz and friends

Francois Couperin Concerts Royaux; Stephen Schultz, Jory Vinikour, Alexa Haynes-Pilon, Mindy Rosenfeld; Music & Arts

Francois Couperin Concerts Royaux; Stephen Schultz, Jory Vinikour, Alexa Haynes-Pilon, Mindy Rosenfeld; Music & Arts

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
American flautist Stephen Schultz brings purity and character of tone to Couperin's Concerts Royaux

Early 18th century France seemed to develop a taste for chamber works with some sort of ad libitum scoring, keyboard plus instruments which could be varied or missed out altogether. These perhaps reflect the fluidity of the music making within aristocratic households where the music was performed. The preface to Francois Couperin's Concerts royaux, published in 1722, implies performance with a group of musicians taken from harpsichord, flute, oboe, violin and viola da gamba.

On this new disc from Music & Arts, American Baroque flute player Stephen Schultz (founder of American Baroque, principal flute with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Musica Angelica) is joined by Paris-based American harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, viola da gamba player Alexa Haynes-Pilon (principal cellist of Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, a co-director and cellist/gambist of Musica Pacifica, and a co-founder of Ensemble Bizarria.), and Baroque flute player Mindy Rosenfeld to perform Couperin's four Concerts royaux.

In fact, these are only the first four works of a sequence, Couperin would publish another ten in 1724 under the title Nouveaux concerts, ou les Goûts réunis. The titles Concerts royaux comes from the fact the Couperin says in the preface to the published work that they were performed in King Louis XIV's private chambers by a small, select group of musicians. They were evidently performed at the Sunday concerts at Versailles organized by Madame de Maintenon for Louis XIV between 1714 and 1715.

The works' sheer flexibility of scoring (they can even be performed on solo harpsichord) means that musicians can make decisions which shape the music. Here we hear them in the fairly standard format of flute, harpsichord, and viola da gamba, but in some of the movements another melody line appears in the score, which is taken by a second flute. Part of the music's charm is the way different movements are scored differently, so that a movement with two flutes might be followed by one for solo harpsichord. Gonzalo Ruiz in the booklet notes comments that it is 'one of the great ironies of this collection is that while it boasts one of the most detailed, exacting and accurate printing jobs of the era, truly a masterpiece of musical graphics, it is also littered with ambiguities for musicians to confront'.

Each suite begins with a prelude followed by a sequence of dances, but this is music for listening to rather than dancing, yet there is an elegant feeling of movement in the music despite a sometimes significant elaboration in the melody line. 

Jory Vinkour plays a harpsichord by John Phillips, Berkeley (1995) after A. Ruckers, 1646/ P. Taskin, 1780. It is a resonant instrument, one with a rich, definite tone and great sense of definition to the notes. This, combined with Schulze's strong flute tone, gives the music quite a powerful sense of timbre and texture. The recording amplifies this, we feel that we are close to the performers, this is chamber music indeed. Yet the results are still fluid and elegant, strongly characterised but stylish. You sense that these are players of personality which comes over in the music. Whilst the image of music from this period is inevitably the powder and the periwigs, here we have beautifully put together chamber music.

Francois Couperin (1688-1733) - Concerts royaux: Second Concert in D major
Francois Couperin - Concerts royaux: Troisieme Concert in A major
Francois Couperin - Concerts royaux: Premier Concert in G major
Francois Couperin - Concerts royaux: Quatrieme Concert in E minor
Stephen Schulze (flute)
Jory Vinikour (flute)
Alexa Haynes-Pilon (viola da gamba)
Mindy Rosenfeld (flute)
Recorded at Skywalker Sound, a Lucasfilm Ltd. company, Marin County, California, 2-3 January and 3-4 March, 2020

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