The French repertoire is too infrequently programmed by ensembles throughout our state. It was extraordinarily enterprising of Carolina Baroque and their music director, Dale Higbee, to schedule an entire concert dedicated to the music of François Couperin (1668-1733). What the vast stream of the Bach clan was to Germany, the Couperin family line was to France and of them, François (“Couperin le Grand”), was the greatest. He was the leading musical figure in France between Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Le Grand was a major composer and virtuoso for the harpsichord and organ as well as for vocal settings and ensemble music.

Carolina Baroque was organized in 1988 by Dale Higbee, an internationally recognized authority on the recorder, for the purpose of performing music of the Baroque period (c.1600-1750) on period-style instruments. Now in their 23rd season, performances are given in beautiful, intimate and acoustically excellent Chapel of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 200 West Innes Street. The musicians for this all Couperin le Grand concert were Mary Mendenhall and Teresa Radomski, sopranos, John Pruett, violin, Holly Maurer, viola da gamba, then harpsichordist and organist Susan Bates, and Dale Higbee on a variety of recorders.

Couperin admired the works of Italian composer Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) such as his sets of trio sonatas. The French composer sought to adapt the Italian form to the French suite form established by Lully. Late in the service of King Louis XIV, Couperin published Les Concerts Royaux (Royal Concerts) in 1714-15. The four works were composed without specific instrumentation in mind. Higbee’s succinct program notes quote the composer’s preface. These pieces “are of a kind different from those I have previously published. They may be played not only on the harpsichord, but also the violin, the flute, the oboe, the viol, and the bassoon.”

The first half of the concert opened with Royal Concert No. 2 in D and closed with Royal Concert No. 4 in E minor. Both works open with Preludes that allow Couperin to draw out his lyric gifts freely. A light and graceful Allemande follows. Beyond that, the number and type of movements differ. No. 2 has two movements marked “fugue,” meaning not the strict fugue of J.S. Bach but, according to David Tunley in Couperin “are apt to lapse into a lively melodic figure with a bass accompaniment.” No. 4 and No. 2 have sections marked “légèrement” or “vivement” which are breezy and fleet-footed. Dance movements figure in six of the seven movements of No. 4, “Courantes,” Sarabande, Rigaudon, and Forlane.” Its 4th movement, “Courante à italienne” is the only direct allusion to the composer’s love of the Italian style. Higbee and Pruett on violin took it in turn to take the melodic lead in most movements, ably supported by Maurer and Bates on continuo. Pitch was a-415. Intonation and phrasing were excellent and ornamentation was done tastefully. Both soloists played with élan, warm tone, and great care for instrumental color. Higbee reported he used a soprano recorder in C made by Friedrich von Huene for Concert No. 2 and a “Sixth Flute,” a soprano recorder on D made by Jean-Luc Boudreau in Concert No. 4.

Couperin’s Leçons des Ténèbres Pour de Mercredi Saint (Lessons of Darkness for Holy Wednesday) were composed for the liturgies of Holy Week at the Abbey of Longchamps and were published in 1714. The text is drawn from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Only three of the original nine settings survive. Leçon de Ténèbre No. 1 was sandwiched between Royal Concerts 2 & 4 before intermission. Soprano Mary Mendenhall brought an almost pure instrumental brightness and light to the first Leçon. Her diction was excellent and tone was warm and pleasing. Leçon de Ténèbre No. 2 opened the program after intermission with a piece with more emotional depth. Soprano Teresa Radomski, who taught her colleague at Wake Forest University, brought an almost mezzo-soprano richness to her darker tone. Her diction and phrasing were outstanding. Both sopranos’ strongly contrasted vocal color and tone worked out superbly in Leçon de Ténèbre No. 3. Between these two vocal works, Susan Bates played the “Elevation” from the Organ Mass for the Convents and brought out what David Tumley calls “an almost improvisatory” quality. The chapel’s organ was made by the N.C. Firm Cornel Zimmer. The singers were ably and imaginatively supported by Maurer on viola da gamba and Bates on Higbee’s gorgeously decorated harpsichord by Richard Kingston 1986.

The seven-movement suite, Le Parnasse ou L’Apothéose de Corelli (1724), brought the concert to brilliant and lively conclusion. Corelli is received by the Muses and admitted into Parnassus where he drinks the waters of the Spring of Hippocreme. After his vivid reaction to the waters, Corelli sleeps as his followers play a gentle lullaby. The Muses awaken him and he is presented to Apollo, and Corelli enthusiastically expresses his thanks. Higbee’s and Pruett’s recorder and violin solos and pairings were delightful. Higbee used a “Sixth Flute” made by Dolmetsch. Bates’ use of the lute stop in the lullaby was lovely. I look forward to Carolina Baroque’s eventual issuing of this concert on CD.