Couperin: Concerts Royaux (CD review)

Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques. Aparte Music AP196.

I'm only guessing here, but if you're a typical classical-music fan, you probably recognize the name Francois Couperin (1668-1733), the French Baroque composer, organist, harpsichordist, and probably most famous member of the musically talented Couperin family. What you may not be able to do, however, is name a few of his compositions or whistle a couple of tunes he wrote. Which is why a recording like this one, "Concerts Royaux," from Christophe Rousset and members of his Les Talens ensemble comes in handy.

Yes, the composer is mainly known today for his keyboard works, but he wrote a number of pieces for chamber groups and various combinations of instruments. Couperin, being worried about so many inaccurate copies of his works that were circulating, decided to publish them himself, which he did between 1722-1728. He published "Concerts Royaux," the first of five volumes, in 1722, and they included the music on the current disc.

The title, "Royal Concerts," derives from their being written for King Louis XIV and comprise four harpsichord suites originally composed in 1714-1715 and played at the royal court. Couperin also left notes indicating that the instrumentation could be left to the musicians' discretion. Nor did the composer intend these pieces as true suites, but rather as collections of individual works put together according to his mood at the time. So, these days there is plenty of room for experimentation regarding the instruments in play.

Christophe Rousset
Les Talens Lyriques employ the talents of Stephanie-Marie Degand, violin; Georges Barthel, flute; Patrick Beaugiraud, oboes; Atsushi Sakai,viola de gamba; and Christophe Rousset, founder and leader of the group, which often utilizes up to several dozen players, on harpsichord. Couperin gives us the names of the musicians who performed with him, and they were among the best in the field at that time. So today's musicians have a lot to live up to, and Rousset's players are up to the task.

Couperin assembled the four suites from preludes, airs, and mainly dances, allemandes, sarabandes, gavottes, gigues, minuets, courantes, chaconnes, forlanes, and the like. What's more, most of the dances were of the slow, stately type, so the music is largely comfortable and relaxing, if not a tad melancholy. This might, though, be a relief from the many hurried, sometimes helter-skelter baroque compositions we often encounter. Rousset and his crew present each suite with a healthy dose of grace, polish, and restraint.

Of the four suites, the booklet writer, Erik Kocevar, says the fourth is "without a doubt the finest of the four, and the most consistent in the quality of its parts." I would agree. The fourth suite displays the greatest variety, imagination, and refinement of the four. Nonetheless, for that matter, I doubt I could remember one suite from the other if I listened to them again a few minutes apart. While they are pleasantly attractive, there is a sameness about them that probably only makes them distinguishable to Couperin or Baroque connoisseurs. Kind of like what all of our grandparents said about pop music.

Be aware that despite the disc containing four separate suites of music of five to seven movements each, the movements themselves are quite short, the longest being about four minutes, the others two or three minutes. Thus, the entire running time of the album is less than an hour. Not that I would pose any objection. To have packed it out with miscellaneous Couperin items simply for the sake of filling out the disc space might have been distracting.

Producer Clement Rousset and engineers Clement Rousset and Thimothee Langlois with the studio Little Tribeca recorded the music at Eglise Evangelique Lutherienne Saint-Pierre, Paris in December 2015. The sound appears a bit close, yet it's warm and round, too. Individual instruments show good detail and the ensemble a modicum of depth, although there being so few instruments it really doesn't much matter. Definition is, as I say, good and projects a clean presence. Low notes are a little on the woolly side but highs sparkle, so overall definition is fine. Nor is the harpsichord always noticeable, but, then, I've never heard this group in a concert performance, so what do I know? Certainly, the music is easy on the ears.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa