When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at our doorsteps in the spring of 2020 and all my con- certs were cancelled, I began to think about a second program of Baroque music on the piano. With encouragement from François Mario Labbé and Julie Fournier, Analekta’s president and general manager respectively, I selected repertoire that I enjoy and that I feel sounds very good on the piano.
Among the best-known keyboard works of Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, whose teaching prowess earned him the mon- iker “maker of organists,” are the variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End. The work is based on a German song that opens with a descending scale, easily recognizable at the start of all six variations. Variations 1, 2, and 6 feature a vocal, four-voice polyphonic style, but variations 3, 4, and 5 are treated in a more keyboard-like manner. The words to the song begin, “My young life is at an end, my joy and also my sorrow.”
Johann Jakob Froberger lived much of his life in the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that greatly affected Germany and that decimated its population. Haunted by the omnipresent spectre of death, people took comfort in religion and music. The Méditation sur ma mort future, in the brilliant key of D Major, offers a source of hope and consola- tion. Froberger indicated that the piece should be played “slowly and with discretion,” i.e., without an overly strict tempo.
The Passacaglia of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer is from his Musicalischer Parnassus, a collection of nine suites, each bearing the name of a Greek Muse. The closing suite, Uranie, ends with a grand passacaglia, the most developed piece of the entire collection. Each of its 23 eight-measure sections follows the principle of variation and demonstrates a high mastery of composition. J.S. Bach, according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, held Fischer in high esteem and considered him one of the greatest composers of his time.
In the touching “Largo” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in F Minor, the soloist is accompanied by strings playing in delicate pizzicato. I recorded these separately from the solo part and used the magic of mod- ern electronics to put it all together.
I have never tired of Bach’s luminous French Suite in G Major. Probably the most frequently performed of the six French Suites, it always inspires joy. The contrasts of the successive dances and the graceful interplay make the work utterly compelling from the first hearing.
The Sinfonia No. 5 in E-flat Major, again by Bach, has two imitating lines in the right hand and a bass line in the left. The version in the Klavierbüchlein is unornamented in the two upper parts, but in the wonderful later version of 1723, which I play here, Bach added orna- mental notation.
Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Minor, K. 9, is from his Essercizi per gravicembalo, a collection of 30 sonatas published in London in 1738. The work’s preface states, “Reader, do not expect, whether you are a dilettante or a professor, to find in these compositions any profound intention, but rather an ingenious banter in the art to exercise you in rigorous play of the harpsichord. … Live happily.” The collection is dedicated to King John V of Portugal, who had summoned Scarlatti to Lisbon to give harpsichord lessons to his daughter, Maria Barbara, the future queen of Spain. The Sonata in B Minor, K. 87, with its vocal style and generally four-voice texture, is among Scarlatti’s loveliest and most melancholy sonatas.
François Couperin often gave evocative and sometimes mysterious titles to his works, indicating a portrait or character piece. “I always have something in mind when composing these pieces: offered up to me on various occasions. Thus, the titles match my ideas: I shall be excused from accounting for them.” Les Ombres Errantes, with the indication “Languissamment” (languidly), is a work of rare expressive beauty. Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins is a lively work that, on the harpsichord, requires a two-manual instrument because the hands overlap and frequently play unison notes. If two manuals are not available, Couperin’s solution is simple : play the left hand an octave lower.
In the notes to his volume of harpsichord works, Armand-Louis Couperin, son of a cousin of François Couperin (“the Great”), states that he was encouraged by friends to compose for the instrument. His sole collection contains just over 20 works in which “everything is a portrait in different genres.” Armand-Louis created musical portraits of many musician friends, including André Chéron, in a rondeau that is not lacking in a certain romanticism.
Claude Balbastre was the organist at Notre-Dame in Paris as well as being Marie- Antoinette’s harpsichord teacher. La Lugeac is a lively Italian-style gigue he wrote in tribute to Charles-Antoine de Guérin, Marquis de Lugeac.
© Luc Beauséjour, 2021
English translation: Peter Christensen