Paolo Pandolfo has dedicated so much energy over the years to the presence of the viola da gamba from the Baroque era that it is curious that, until now, he has not provided us with his interpretation of the major works for that instrument by one of France’s leading composers from that time: François Couperin.
Of course, François Couperin (1668-1733) is today often chiefly remembered as a composer of harpsichord music (and of sacred music and organ compositions too). However, he had many regular commitments at the French court during his career, which called upon him to provide music for chamber ensembles. Couperin was very much open to all national compositional influences. He had, as colleagues in the court, masters of the viol such as Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray, and would surely have been influenced by them when, towards the end of his life he was composing his Pièces de violes avec la basse chifrée. Published in 1728 these two Suites subsequently drifted into oblivion. It is only since the early 1970s that these works for viola da gamba and continuo have regained a rightful place as being amongst the finest French compositions of the 18th century.
Together with his own colleagues (Amélie Chemin, playing a second viola da gamba, Thomas Boysen, theorbo and Baroque guitar and Markus Hünninger, harpsichord), Paolo Pandolfo has now turned to the Pièces de violes and to two Concerts (or Sonatas) from the 1724 collection Les Goûts réunis (which specifically call for the viol) to demonstrate the quality of Couperin’s contribution to the viol literature.
Here Pandolfo talks about his relationship to the music and the technical and interpretative challenges posed for the modern player by François Couperin le grand.
I imagine that you have known the music of Couperin for some time, but why has it not featured on recordings from you until now?
In fact, I have known deeply Couperin’s pieces since I was a student, but I have to admit that they have not been part of my performance repertoire for many years. I had some kind of reverence for them, some kind of special respect, that made me keep myself a little distant from them.
How did François Couperin - known above all as a composer for the harpsichord - approach writing music for the viola da gamba?
Couperin didn’t write what might be called specifically “viola da gamba” music; he just wrote “music”. Unlike his uncle Louis, he wasn’t a viol player; instead he was a fantastic harpsichord player and a composer of genius. He was at the court, he knew people like Marais and Forqueray, so he was obviously familiar with all the viola da gamba sounds and tricks, and I am convinced that he expected these to be used while performing his pieces. However, he wouldn’t write all these down - he wouldn’t fix them - as Marais or the Forquerays clearly did.
Couperin was inventing those pieces on the keyboard of a harpsichord, and writing them out in a typical harpsichord notation. In order to be truthful to the composer’s ideas such pieces need, to my way understanding, some kind of “translation” into the vocabulary of the viol. This is particularly true for his two Suites of the Pièces de violes.
One possibility worth considering with these works, given that they so rarely employ chords, is that one might suspect that Couperin really didn’t want to use those typical rich resonating sounds. I am, however, convinced that any good viol player of the time was so accustomed to include chords in his playing that he would simply do it, according to his taste and understanding of the music.
What did François Couperin have to say with the viola da gamba that wasn’t being said at that time by Marin Marais or Antoine Forqueray?
He imparted to the viol his great musical ideas, and this is more than enough! His scores contribute to the creation of a rich and rounded image of the viol in France in those years. From orchestra ouverture-like preludes (the Prélude from the second Suite) to fragile and “plantifs” (lament-like) pieces (the Prélude from the first Suite); from pompous descriptions of those magnificent and theatrical funerals of the aristocrats, designed to leave the deepest impression on the public (the Pompe funèbre from the second Suite) to joyful chaconnes where one almost sees the dancers pirouetting (the Chaconne from the 12th Concert of Les Goûts réunis); from sarabandes graves where the French and Italian styles overlap creating an incredible space-time illusion (are we in Paris or in Rome...? Think of the Sarabande from the first Suite) to acrobatic pieces that demand from the violist the ability of the most skilled jongleur in order for them to be played Très vite as Couperin demands (La chemise blanche, from the second Suite). Each of Couperin’s works is a masterpiece, a milestone along the path of the viol through 18th century European music.
Creating homages to other people, including composers (Forqueray: La Couperin; Couperin: La Superbe, ou La Forqueray, for example) appears to have been fashionable for French composers at the start of the 18th century. Is it possible to consider Couperin’s Pièces de violes in this light?
No composer’s name actually appears in the titles of either the Pièces de violes or of the Concerts that I have performed here from Les Goûts réunis. Nonetheless, they obviously may be intended in their whole as a homage from Couperin to those viol players who had made their viols resonate in Versailles and Paris. It is frequently stated that Couperin’s relationship with Marais may have been a conflictive one, but it is difficult not to imagine the deepest mutual admiration between the two composers. Is it a coincidence that the year of edition of the Pièces de violes is so close to that of the death of Marin Marais?
As a viola da gamba player, how do you react to Couperin’s music for the viol?
I think that Couperin must have had the deepest confidence in the skills of viol players! In his compositional writing Couperin delegated a sort of “translation into the violistic idiom”: this comes through in the way he wrote ornaments, bow slurs, as well as the excessive rarity of chords in the music that I was mentioning earlier. It makes one ask oneself the question, “is this really viol music?” Often when studying this music I had to sit at the harpsichord in order to understand certain passages before carrying out this act of “translation” for the viola da gamba.
The task of translating each written score into sounds is, as a matter of fact, always challenging, and that of Couperin’s pieces is even more so: only the player who is most confident with the French viol vocabulary can attempt it, to the point that a simple “reading” of the music often brings on misunderstandings and leads one down artistic culs-de-sac.
Couperin’s Pièces de violes, in particular, are these days regarded very highly. What do they allow the player in terms of expression?
They are just great music. Sometimes they are really hard to play, it is true, but great music notwithstanding. The special nature of the viol has always been its extreme versatility, so it is no wonder if when listening to these pieces all of a sudden one believes one is hearing an oboe, or indeed a full orchestra, or a flute, or two violins before finally, “just” a viol...!
In a concert programme, if you performed the Pièces de violes what other works - by different composers - might you also programme with them?
Well, one may be tempted by showing the audience some “real Italian music”, such as Corelli, as we should keep in mind that “Couperin” and “Cuperinno” were the two faces of the same musician, as well as providing some “real viol music” from Marais or Forqueray, as the sounds of such composers were those that Couperin had in mind while imagining most of the individual works in his Pièces de violes. Finally, it might be interesting also to play some J.S. Bach, the other immense composer who wrote for viol “just music”, and certainly not “viol music”...
MARK WIGGINS © 2013 Note 1 Music / Glossa Music photos by Christoph Frommen