Jory Vinikour's Couperin disc "L'Unique": Change and stability in landmark solo harpsichord music

Cedille Records has been vital in giving wider exposure to Chicago musicians, and the international stature of Jory Vinikour has been enhanced by his brief discography on the label. Modern harpsichord concertos were the focus in a crystalline presentation last year, and that succeeded an illuminating  account of J.S, Bach's violin-harpsichord sonatas two years ago with Rachel Barton Pine.
Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour (photo: Hermann Rosso)

With concentration on Francois Couperin on a new release, Vinikour gets to the heart of his substantial training in French clavecin music. He presents three of the books (ordres) by which the French baroque master cemented his reputation as both teacher and canonical exemplar of how the repertoire should be performed.

David Fuller concludes his Grove's Dictionary essay on Couperin "le Grand" with these words: "If elsewhere he may at times have matched the wit, the urbanity, the somber passion, the easy charm, the melancholy or the high spirits of his harpsichord music, in no other medium did he combine those qualities to so remarkable a degree."

The listener to "L'Unique," the title given to Vinikour's presentation of the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, will consistently note how vividly these qualities are brought forward.

The rhythmic acuity, with crisply turned ornaments being essential to the expression, is remarkable. The timing is varied to suit the expressive import of the varied phrases; the daunting thicket of notes on the page takes on a translucent clarity in Vinikour's interpretations.

The sound of the harpsichord (Tony Chinnery, 2012) is bright and flexible in tone color. The lower register occupies its share of the spectrum creditably, notably in the piece everyone knows best, "Les Baricades Mysterieuses," with its intriguing air of artfully blocked striving toward the treble. The miking seems close but never stifling in a recording made a year ago at the University of Chicago.

In the seventh book, a generalized group of character pieces titled "Les Petits Ages," a kind of harpsichord equivalent of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man (though Couperin contents himself with four), displays insight into the composer's probing, sensitive wit. The innocence and wide-open appetite for experience of the newborn passes into the restlessness of early childhood. Sonorities appropriate to Couperin's rendering of those early stages of life give way to the bumptious glare of adolescence, brilliantly outlined in Vinikour's playing. "Les Petits Ages" is crowned by the mellowness of "Les Delices" (the delights).

Less abstract portraiture is also engaging: In the sixth book, "Les Bergeries" offers a glimpse of pastoral life decorated by twittering birds, and the two pieces  that conclude the set dip into the world of people and insects: "La Commere" clatters just enough to portray the lively tediousness of gossip, and "Le Moucheron" darts and dips, with trills buzzing, in deft imitation of the fly in its title.

The focus on dance forms in the eighth book, doggedly rooted in B minor, exemplifies the formal acumen also evident in Couperin's chamber music. The Passacaille that concludes the ordre, and brings this disc to a glorious conclusion, exemplifies Couperin's ability to put his signature on the technical and expressive resources of the harpsichord when the aim was to make a received form personal, just as his younger contemporary J.S. Bach did with such dance forms in his suites.

Along the way, as in the same book's "Sarabande: "L'Unique" that gives the disc its title, Couperin  creates an attractive structure that's like a palace with an integrated decor scheme that magnifies the whole. Vinikour is a docent of incomparable insight, commitment, and thorough preparation.


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