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Louis Couperin: Pieces d'orgue.

The unavailability of the organ works of Louis Couperin has for many years been a source of acute frustration to any performer with more than a passing interest in the music of this period. Tantalizing glimpses of the quality of this corner of the composer's output could previously only be obtained from the few pieces which survive in non-autograph copies, and which were consequently unaffected by the embargo on publication imposed by the owner of the autograph manuscript of the organ works. The appearance of this collection in the new Organa Gallica series, edited by Nicolas Gorenstein, is therefore doubly welcome, not only for the stature of the music it contains, but also because it seems to have prompted the publication (at last) of an edition of the complete autograph manuscript, expected to appear later this year under the L'Oiseau-Lyre imprint. The resulting duplication of effort is, however, perhaps unfortunate.

Organa Gallica is directed at the scholastically aware performer; its stated aims are to provide 'modern, practical and reliable editions' and to 'preserve the source material intact'. The present volume is handsomely produced, with elegant typefaces and beautifully clean and carefully spaced music setting, although the paper is perhaps too transparent for comfort. The elegance of the visual aspects of the edition does not extend, regrettably, to the editor's essay on the composer, which suffers from an ungainly translation, or to the format of the editorial notes, which are an uncomfortable mixture of the telegraphic and the clumsy; that a 'fine false relation is enhanced by the temperament' is undoubtedly true, but it may be argued that the critical notes are not the place to say so.

The editorial approach is restrained and for the most part unexceptionable. Dubious accidentals are tacitly corrected in the text, while irregular beamings and irrational groupings are maintained, and there has been no attempt to standardize the layout of pieces according to the modern convention which always places the pedal part on the lowest stave. However, it is debatable whether the absence of prefatory staves and 'old clefs' can be dismissed as 'simply a visual matter' in what is intended at least in part as a scholarly edition. One or two pages of the source in facsimile would have helped here, as indeed would some information on the sources used as the basis for the edition. This last point is especially pertinent in view of the previous unavailability of all but a tiny proportion of the music contained in this edition. Has Gorenstein been granted access to the autograph in the possession of Guy Oldham? Has he discovered a new source? Sensible use of this volume is rendered much more difficult by the omission of this information, and it is hard to understand why it should be lacking here when other volumes in the same series provide exactly what is required in these areas.

Gorenstein also offers a limited amount of practical guidance to the performer; specifications of the organs associated with the composer are quoted, and a few suggestions are made for use of independent pedal 4[feet] in plainsong-based trio textures, a registration which Louis Couperin seems to have pioneered. Perhaps a little more advice on these points would not have gone amiss, even for experienced performers. There is no discussion of pitch or temperament, and other issues of performance practice were presumably thought too basic for an edition such as this to mention.

The music itself is splendid, in every way the equal of the harpsichord works. The richly textured plein jeu movements with plainsong cantus firmi are especially fine - the varied treatment of the plainsong themes Ave maris stella and Pange lingua is remarkable - but the volume also takes in numerous free works (there are several fine Fantaisies), and an extraordinary Fantaisie des Duretez, which owes an obvious debt to Frescobaldi's Elevation Toccatas but far exceeds them - and probably everything else in the period for that matter - in harmonic audacity.

Until L'Oiseau-Lyre produces its edition of the complete autograph manuscript of this music enterprising performers who wish to extend their knowledge of the French Classical repertory should not hesitate to acquire the Organa Gallica volume. Would it be too much to hope that some enterprising organist is planning a companion recording of these works?
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Author:Farr, Stephen
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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