JEAN-NICOLAS GEOFFROY (1633-1694)
Pièces de clavessin
Suitte en c sol ut
Suitte en c sol ut b mol
Suitte en d la re
Suitte en g re sol b quar
Ewa Mrowca, harpsichord
Dux - 0137
The music of the French harpsichord school takes an important place in today's repertoire of keyboard players. However, the attention paid to the various representatives of that school is often somewhat off balance. Several composers are still largely under the radar, and especially the composers from the early stages of harpsichord writing in France are little-known. Among the clavecinistes of the 17th century it is especially Louis Couperin, whose oeuvre is thoroughly explored. Several complete recordings are on the market. In comparison the likes of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Jean-Nicolas Geoffroy and Nicolas Lebègue are largely overlooked. That makes this disc which is entirely devoted to Geoffroy a production of great importance.
The little attention given to him is especially odd considering that he was the author of the largest collection of harpsichord music of 17th-century France, according to David Fuller in New Grove. Little is known about his life and career. It is known that he was organist of St Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, probably until 1690. The Livre des pieces de clavessin de tous les tons naturels et transposéz is the only collection of music which is certainly authentic. Several discs are on the market with vocal music by Geoffroy, but it is questionable whether these are indeed from his pen.
The collection, which was put together after his death, has never been printed and has only come down to us in manuscript. It comprises 213 pieces, 42 of which exist in a second, transposed version. The collection also includes some organ pieces and compositions for viols (some with harpsichord). The harpsichord pieces are grouped into 16 suites, but composers at the time did not expect performers to follow those groupings slavishly. That practice is followed here as well, as suites are extended by independent pieces in the same key.
Those keys are remarkable: the titles of the various suites indicate that Geoffroy liked to write pieces in various keys. He used no less than 14 tonic keys as the title of his collection indicates. In her liner-notes Ewa Mrowca writes: "An explanation of the term itself les tons naturels et transposez may be found in Les Principes du Clavecin by Monsieur de Saint Lambert of 1702, which lays down the interpretation of natural and transposed keys. These are closely linked to meantone temperance, commonly used in the music of the 17th century, described in France by Mersenne, and Jean Denis, who came from a renowned family of harpsichord builders. Its use underwrites the unique harmonic language adopted by Geoffroy." That language immediately comes to the fore in the very first piece of the programme, the allemande la Confidente.
Character pieces or pieces of a more or less descriptive nature are rare in 17th-century keyboard music. This selection includes some: apart from the allemande just mentioned I could mention the danse paysanne and the three airs de bergere from the Suitte en g re sol b quar. This suite closes with a chaconne which has some similarities with the famous passacaille in C by Louis Couperin. Two of the other suites also include a chaconne. These chaconnes are considerably shorter than those by later composers. Another popular form was the tombeau: the Suitte en c sol ut b mol ends with a tombeau en forme d'allemande.
The Polish harpsichordist Ewa Mrowca who has also made a career as a scholar, is delivering very fine and stylish performances. She uses a copy of a harpsichord by Pierre Donzelague, a famous French harpsichord builder who was born in Bruges and settled in Lyon in 1688. An original instrument was used by Christophe Rousset for his recording of music by Marchand and Rameau. Such an instrument is well suited to this repertoire; it is in meantone temperament and its pitch is a=392'. Ms Mrowca's performance is nicely differentiated. Several suites include some identical dances, such as two sarabandes or two gavottes. She manages to interpret them in such a way that the second is more than just more of the same. The application of notes inégales is subtle and effective. Only the allemandes didn't fully satisfy me: Ms Mrowca makes a little too heavy weather of them. Maybe the unstressed notes should have been given a little less weight.
For various reasons this is an important release which sheds light on a neglected composer. The size of his output is such that there is still much to be discovered. This disc is the first important step. Ms Mrowca makes an excellent case for Geoffroy's oeuvre.
Johan van Veen, 18 February 2013