One of the great black holes in the history of Western music is the lack of roughly the first two centuries of harpsichord music from France, despite ample evidence that the tradition was flourishing well before its most famous exponent, François Couperin, took his place at the manuals. The reasons for this lapse are manifold, though a lack of surviving manuscripts and the refusal of monopolistic French printer Ballard to publish such material remain among the most conspicuous suspects. Notwithstanding the breach in the repertoire, Canadian harpsichordist Johanne Couture has put together an intriguing program out of some of the earliest extant French harpsichord music in her album La Belle Homicide for the enterprising early-music.com label. This draws from expected sources within this realm, such as Champion de Chambonnières, Jean-Henri d'Anglebert, and Louis Couperin, but also draws from lute music known to have been played interchangeably on both instruments; most of these pieces date from the middle of the seventeenth century. It might not take us back to the true foundations of French harpsichord music circa 1500, but it does demonstrate that the basic seeds that were harvested in the work of Couperin's Le Grand were planted not only in the enigmatic music of his uncle, but that of lute composers like Ennemond Gaultier and even a female composer, Germain Pinel, Louis XIV's lute instructor.
Couture plays a copy, made by Canadian instrument builder Yves Beaupré, of a magnificent French harpsichord in the Victoria and Albert Museum dated 1681 that seems almost psycho-acoustically matched to the music under consideration and has a deep, royal color while retaining a great deal of intimacy; seventeenth century French tastes put a high premium on quiet music-making. Couture's own sense of style brisé -- a manner of keyboard playing derived from the arpeggio figures favored by lutenists -- is innate and serves to transmit the deep flowing sense of emotion and graciousness; in recordings of French harpsichord music, one does not always get both of these aspects. Couture's La Belle Homicide will well more than satisfy tastes already attuned to early harpsichord music, but might well reach out to those simply looking for a quiet, elegant, and reflective musical experience.