The tricky matter of French baroque music emerged, including the fact that it often doesn’t seem to satisfy or even be really successful when played on the piano. Which prompted me to air a long-held theory as to why Bach, Handel et al work on piano but the French baroque composers don’t…
Some music succeeds in its bones (think JS Bach, think Beatles). The things that make us love these works and which draw us in are at a very fundamental level of melody, harmony, rhythm and pulse. And such music can “take” a lot of varied treatments. You can play pieces like this on different instruments, arrange them, use them as the basis for jazz improvisation, you name it.
Some music succeeds because of its surface, its skin (think French baroque, think ABBA). The value is in the style, the gesture, the ornaments, the colours, the very mode of performance. This kind of music is much less malleable and often resistant to being rearranged, or having its performance style modified. It works when you play it “authentically” with the original performance practices of its creation and on the instruments intended. The further you depart from that the less satisfying it is.
As they say, the exception proves the rule, and one exception at the French baroque end of things is a delicious piece by François Couperin, Les Baricades mistérieuses. (When I eventually get a piano, this will be its baptismal piece.) In the Couperin the beauty and the appeal of the music is to be found in its harmonic bones and its textures. Which is why it can work very nicely on the piano.
I’ve just learned that Angela Hewitt’s (piano) performance of the Couperin was used in the soundtrack for the recent film The Tree of Life.
Be wary of the performances of Les Baricades that are to be found on YouTube. Unlike Scott Ross, many keyboardists seem to miss the sensuousness of this music and play it much too fast. (Or, in one or two cases, they take it way too slow.)
Want to play it yourself? The 1717 edition of the ordre or suite from which it comes can be found here, with Les Baricades beginning on page 6 (requires the reading of alto clef for the right hand), and a modernised edition here.