This month we hear from Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Publications Editor Yvonne Frindle about some music she simply can’t live without!
I am that most unfortunate of creatures: a pianist without a piano. And the longer I procrastinate, the more and more out of practice I become. After eight years, I doubt I’ll be trying out my next piano with one of Haydn’s great English sonatas or Rachmaninoff’s Polichinelle. Oh no.
There’s another piece I’ll be pulling from my satchel when time comes to explore the Next Piano’s sonority and touch. It’s charming, it’s intriguing and I love it to bits. (It also has the virtue of falling beautifully under the fingers, no matter how dormant one’s technique.) That piece is Les Baricades mistérieuses by François Couperin le Grand, a rondeau from the sixth ordre (or suite) in his second book of Pièces de Clavecin. Harpsichord music, in other words, but harpsichord music that works just as well on piano.
But it was on harpsichord that I first got to know this piece, and that’s probably how it should be:
This performance by Hanneke van Proosdij is synchronised with the 1717 edition – follow along and enjoy!
Why do I adore this piece?
On a purely tactile level, I love the way the two hands must operate so closely together on the keyboard. It’s like stroking a cat.
I love the style brisé (or broken style) texture, which Couperin uses to weave a carpet of legato sound. It’s an effect the French harpsichordists stole from the lutenists and Wanda Landowska in her recording from the 1940s nods to the theft by using the lute stop for the refrain.
And I love – as an extension of those endless broken chords – the way the different voices are entwined. The composer and pianist Thomas Adès has described Les Baricades mistérieuses as an object lesson in generating melody from harmony and vice versa. He pays tribute in a revealing arrangement for low instruments: clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and double bass.
That’s something else I’ve always loved about this piece: it sits low on the keyboard, never going above the G above middle C. It sits so low that Couperin notates the right hand part in alto clef. On both harpsichord and piano, the result is a rich, chocolatey sound.
Then there’s the title – ‘Mysterious Barricades’ – what can it mean? There are as many theories as there are performers, some wild, some vaguely plausible. Perhaps, as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia says of Fermat’s last theorem, it was simply a joke to make us all mad!
I’ve always believed the clue must lie in the character of the music itself. And the music is so seductive, I can’t help but agree with those who see in the title a kind of double entendre – a suggestion of feminine eyelashes and flirtation echoed in the coyly swaying lute figurations and the teasing suspensions, which offer a literal barricade to the basic harmonic progressions.
Yet not everyone agrees. There are those – especially pianists, because they can! – who ripple through the piece, barely pausing for breath. Alexandre Tharaud most impressively, while Marcelle Meyer in a recording from 1953 shows this approach is nothing new. In their hands the piece becomes a kind of toccata, beautiful in its own way but not, I think, what Couperin had in mind.
But let the harmony shape the musical conversation with lulls and pauses and forward movement and Couperin’s music rewards with sounds that are haunting, spontaneous and utterly delicious. Which is why I love Les Baricades mistérieuses.
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Yvonne Frindle tweets for the Sydney Symphony @sydsymph