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 Interview, Carole Cerasi on Couperin

Carole CerasiEarlier this year, UK-based harpsichordist Carole Cerasi released her monumental complete survey of the harpsichord works of François Couperin; this is repertoire in which Cerasi has long been considered a world-leading expert and her affinity for it is immediately obvious in her performances.

I spoke to Carole about this Herculean task, and about the way Couperin explores the musical palette of the harpsichord.

This is a monumental undertaking – almost twelve hours of music! Where did the idea come from to record Couperin’s complete keyboard works in one set?

When I started playing the harpsichord, at age eleven, the first composer who really made me fall in love with the instrument was Couperin. I have always felt very close to his music, and as we approached his anniversary year, I thought it would be a good time to think of a complete set of his harpsichord pieces. I generally dislike the idea of complete recordings - I have neither the patience to remain on a project very long, even if the repertoire fascinates me, nor enough confidence to imagine that I could carry out such a huge task. I dithered for a long time, finally leaving myself with only one year to record everything, which on one hand was quite stressful - it is ten CDs ! - but on the other hand made the experience very intense. Despite the tremendous work that this recording represented, followed by a year of editing (the most painful part of this 'birth'!), I feel privileged to have spent this time with Couperin.

If there’s one piece of Couperin that most classical music-lovers are likely to know, it’s his enigmatic Les Baricades Mistérieuses, one of a number of pieces by him that bear pictorial, often whimsical, titles. Why do you think Couperin wrote so many pieces of this kind, in a time that isn’t normally associated with impressionistic keyboard miniatures?

Jane Clark has done some very interesting research into this area, shedding social and historical light on the personalities and events which may have sparked Couperin’s imagination. While he leant more and more towards these titles, primarily depicting people, but also events, places and sentiments (as did other composers of that period in France), the great Couperin pioneer, Kenneth Gilbert, suggested that ‘as in all music, the picturesque or programmatic elements should never be allowed to take precedence over the pure musical values inherent in these works.’

You’ve used a variety of instruments for this recording – six in all. Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind these choices? Are you retracing the technical evolution of the instrument, or was the decision driven more by sound?

I wanted to use antique instruments, as I often have in the past. Selecting harpsichords was very difficult as there are many very fine ones, but in the end we had to be practical — travelling abroad to record can be a very expensive and complicated business. I was very fortunate in being allowed to record on the fine Ruckers-Hemsch in the Cobbe Collection (I had already used it for my Jacquet de La Guerre CD). Even more exciting for me was the generous loan of an Antoine Vater of 1738, which has hardly been recorded and was restored specifically for this project. It is very likely that Telemann played this harpsichord when he visited the maker in Paris that year.

Speaking of instruments, harpsichordists have something of a reputation for obsessing over tuning and temperament; did you consider tuning systems for this recording, or is this less of a concern for you?

Of course, the use of a suitable temperament was an important issue as it affects the colour of the various tonalities so much. We chose a fifth-comma system which would have been known in Couperin’s time.

Having scaled this considerable musical mountain, can you tell us anything about your future plans? You’ve recorded Bach’s English Suites, but by and large you seem to have steered clear of him… any chance of a Well-Tempered Clavier in the pipeline?

I am still recovering from the enormousness of this recording! There is no real reason for my lack of Bach recordings, and I may well tackle more of his works in the future. At the moment Peter Philips is in the front of my mind, but he is by no means the only one - possibly more CPE Bach on clavichord, some late French clavecin composers…