Sunday, 9 September 2012

Le retour de Madame Guerre… plus Grumpy

L'Oiseau-Lyre OL 50183 cover [small]

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre
(Not) Complete Harpsichord Works
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault
Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1704
Thurston Dart (harpsichord by Thomas Goff)
L’Oiseau-Lyre  OL 50183 (p. 1959)

Once again, apologies for the long silence. Good news: I’ve more or less finished the thesis! It means I can at last bring you some of the many intriguing LPs I’ve bought recently. I’m also itching to transfer several rare and fascinating 78s. But they’ll have to wait until I hook up the varispeed turntable, buy some suitable styli and a proper pre-amp and, most importantly, a record-washing machine. A couple of LPs have proved too grubby even for Grumpy and will need the kind of treatment Matron used to mete out to us after games.

But I knew very quickly this’d be a good ’un – and so it is, except for one very odd fault and another not so odd. As the Gramophone reviewer put it: ‘The record is unfortunately marred by a persistent technical fault—a kind of rumbling or roaring noise which is only too audible through the delicate sounds of the harpsichord. I am inclined to think that this is caused not by some external nuisance such as traffic, but by some mechanical or electronic failing in the recording equipment used.’

Actually, it only mars about 4 minutes of one suite; but another is afflicted with a different and deliberate defect. More on both problems below. Otherwise, the recording is close but not oppressive, crisp and clear. In fact it mirrors the playing of Thurston Dart and admirably suits his instrument. Mind you, good though Dart is, there’s a slight feeling of him translating a foreign idiom, although he manages some lilting notes inégales. He does a of lot of colouring-in with stops; and he betrays a hint of the 1950s ‘sewing-machine’ aesthetic in the often unrelenting way he zips through phrases and paragraphs.

I was a bit unfair in my title listing: this LP was issued in 1959, well before Mme Jacquet de la Guerre’s first keyboard book, of four suites, was rediscovered in the 1980s. The fifth and sixth suites here make up her Pièces de clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le viollon (1707). The first is in d minor and was recorded by Dart in this order: La Flamande (with Double)—Courante (with Double)—Rigaudons I & II—Gigues I (with Double) & II—Chaconne. The second suite, in G major, is more conventionally laid out: Allemande—Courante—Sarabande—Menuet—Rondeau. It’s inventive, striking, instantly memorable music, which I’ve enjoyed several times while getting this transfer ready.

At first, I thought Clérambault was prettier and slighter but he’s grown on me, with some notably expressive moments.  The grave, unmeasured preludes of each suite are especially fine, and well handled by Dart, though one minuet gets too jaunty for Grumpy. The first suite is in C major: Prélude—Allemande (with Double)—Courante—Sarabandes I & II—Gavotte (with Double)—Gigue—Menuets I & II (en rondeau). The second suite is in c minor: Prélude—Allemande—Courante—Sarabande—Gigue. The Allemande is superb, gruffly eloquent in Dart’s well-chosen registration, if a little stiff, but just what this repertoire is all about.

How remarkable that the long tradition of the clavecinistes, which I can imagine at first seems either arid, desiccated, formal, hermetic and frenchified, or pretty, precious, repetitious, inconsequential and … frenchified, is in fact so varied, personal and rewarding.  (I use ‘frenchified’ as an imaginary term of chauvinistic abuse, uttered by an 18th Century British philistine. But there are plenty of 21st Century British philistines.)

But be prepared for a rude shock in the Allemande of Jacquet de la Guerre’s suite in G. To simulate a piano repeat of the opening section, the engineer cranked the level back, a cheat they were wont to use in the 1950s. Something similar but less extreme seems to happen in the Sarabande, too. That’s nothing compared to what afflicts Clérambault’s first suite: from 3:25, some sort of electronic induction sets off a low, wandering buzz, which maunders on, like a dyspeptic theremin at Dart’s elbow, for 4 minutes and 8 seconds. It’s less noticeable on speakers than on headphones. My good friend Jolyon gallantly removed as much of it as he could but, being the ingrate that I am, I present it here untreated – except for the usual light Daviesification (o, bless his name!) (and Jolyon’s).

Download Jacquet de la Guerre’s suites as two mono, fully tagged FLACs in a .rar here.

Download Clérambault’s suites as two mono, fully tagged FLACs in a .rar here.