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Briefly Noted: Christophe Rousset (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Le Manuscrit de Madame Théobon, C. Rousset

(released on February 18, 2022)
Aparté AP256 | 122'
The story behind this delightful disc is almost too good. First, Christophe Rousset is the musician, one of the most exciting harpsichordists playing today, last heard live in Washington in 2013. Second, he is playing two discs of music drawn from a newly rediscovered manuscript, now in the private collection of Rousset, who managed to acquire it from a bookseller over Ebay. Third, he is playing this wide array of brief pieces, arranged in the order of their key centers, on a harpischord made by Nicolas Dumont in 1704, around the same time that the music was likely copied. David Ley restored this instrument, which Rousset owns, from 2006 to 2016. It is one of only three Dumont harpsichords known to have survived.

Rousset has identified the manuscript's first owner as Lydie de Théobon, a one-time attendant on Queen Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV. The king began a two-year affair with her at the Château de Chambord in 1670, shortly before Molière and Lully premiered Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme there. The king's powerful mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, ousted Lydie from the queen's retinue in 1673, after which Lydie moved to the household of the Princesse Palatine, wife of the king's brother. She died at the Château de Marly in 1708, still in the orbit of the Sun-King. Although there is no record of her having been a great lover of music, the collection was likely compiled by her clavecin teachers.

The pieces copied into the book represent a sort of favorites list for the period. Music by prominent composers (Lully, d'Anglebert, Chambonnières) rubs shoulders with less known names like Ennemond Gaultier, Jacques Hardel, Nicolas Lebègue, and Pierre Gautier. Rousset identified some of the pieces because of his wide knowledge of the period, but others remain anonymous. Quite a few have been recorded here for the first time, at sessions in November 2020 at the Hôtel de l’Industrie in Paris. All are fairly brief, some as short as thirty seconds in duration. Rousset notes in his program notes that only one of the pieces in the manuscript ("Les Échos") explicitly requires a two-keyboard instrument, with the echo effect written out on the page.

The Dumont instrument has a big, brash sound, heard to orchestral effect in the Overture from La Grotte de Versailles, for example. That piece is one of many arrangements of excerpts from the most popular operas at the French court, including Armide and Atys. In a time without recordings, this was the only way to relive one's favorite past performances. Rousset also reveals the intimate side of this harpsichord, with delicate registrations in pieces like the "Sommeil d'Armide." A charming little Menuet by an unknown composer is recorded here for the first time, along with its "doubles," written-out ornamented repeats that give a glimpse into the ephemeral art of embellishment. As he often does, Rousset brings out many unexpected sounds, as in the "Branle des gueux," a pugnacious, folksy tune over a raucous drone pattern in left hand, made to twang almost like the timbre of a mouth harp.

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