François Couperin: ‘Les barricades mystérieuses’  [2’33”]

Rébecca Jablonski, piano

04 François Couperin

Always ahead of his time, François Couperin gives his famed Neville Chamberlain impression

One of the greatest of all composers for harpsichord, François Couperin (1668–1733), ‘Couperin le Grand’ as he is often distinguished from the rest of his extensive family of musical high flyers, spent much of his career at the court of Sun King Louis XIV and ended up something of a French national figure himself.  His pieces for the instrument, collected in four handsomely produced Livres (Books) containing 27 sequences or Ordres (not all suites, as they’re often described), number upward of 230 individual movements and arguably constitute the most consistently gorgeous body of music ever written for keyboard: not profound, or so many assert, but profoundly lovely.

What we have here is the fifth piece of the Sixth Ordre (the first sequence of Book II, published 1717), known, to the bafflement of generations of musicologists, as Les barricades mystérieuses.  Since many of these Pièces de clavecin bear more or less fanciful titles, and they are so plentiful, Couperin must at some point have come up against the kind of titling-fatigue experienced by those jazz players who used to record half a dozen or more albums a year.  Still, ‘Mysterious barricades’?  Who knows?  Ultimately, though, who minds?  Whether the name has discoverable musical or extra-musical significance – the curious may wish to check out this well-informed discussion of the question – we don’t need anything more than open ears to appreciate the gracious charms of Couperin’s morçeau.  With its gently tolling bass and exquisitely decorated melody, it sails serenely to its appointed conclusion without interruption or climax, though a form of resolution is reached in the passage leading to the final iteration at 2’08”.  It’s given here an atmospheric and I think ravishing (if again inauthentic in the narrow sense) outing by a pianist previously unknown to me, and pretty obscure to civilization in general, Rébecca Jablonski.  YouTube provides score readers with the opportunity to follow a harpsichord rendition of the piece by the unimpeachably period-aware Hanneke van Proosdij (search for her on Spotify).

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