Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702) is largely represented in the record catalogue by albums of organ music. Yet his pieces for harpsichord are no less distinctive and appealing in their way, and this new recording presents a rare chance to survey that side of his output in toto.
Known in his day among the most renowned organists of Paris, Lebègue left to us three books of organ music, and this pair of volumes for harpsichord. Their style may owe something to the examples of Chambonnières and Louis Couperin, but there are notable differences. Lebègue tends to underplay the pictorial or illustrative potential of his genre, and emphasise instead its natural language of formal elegance. Such formality is reflected in the organization of his suites, which open with an allemande–courante coupling, preceded only in his first book by unmeasured preludes. After the courante there follows a mixture of dances, always poised and gracefully turned. Particular high-points include the Chaconne in C (first book) and the Chaconne grave in G (second book), which attain a stature worthy of Louis Couperin.
In a personal, engaging but also scholarly booklet essay, Agustín Álvarez outlines his approach: ‘not only as a musician, but from the point of view of a dancer, trying to understand the steps, as well as the physical and intellectual attitudes which mould the sublime art of movement of French Baroque dance and which Nicolas Lebègue gradually reveals to us as a ceremonial master of his art.’ Born in Venezuela and trained in in Madrid and Milan, Álvarez also studied Baroque dance and continues to work with an important Spanish dance company. In 2015 he recorded the Concertos for Two Harpsichords by Soler: a Brilliant Classics album (BC95327) that attracted praise from distinguished quarters: ‘These French-styled harpsichords have beautiful tone… Alvarez and Fernandez make the music sound noble and even sometimes sombre’ (American Record Guide, March 2017).
Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702) spent most of his life at the Court of the Sun King Louis XIV in Versailles, where he was court organist, but also played an active part in all of the manifold musical activities at the court, such as playing the harpsichord for the King, participating in the court orchestra and accompanying famous visiting musicians.
Lebègue played an important role in the development of the Suite, establishing the now common order of Prelude-Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Menuet-Gigue. He also introduces a writing system for the “preludes non-mesurés”, the introductory movement of the suite in which improvisation plays an important part.
In this new recording Augustín Álvarez plays the complete two books of Suites: “I have tried to approach this beautiful music not only as a musician, but from the point of view of dance, of a dancer, trying to understand the inmensity of codes, lost for us today, which were so important at the time, as well as the physical and intellectual attitudes which conform the sublime art of movement of French Baroque dance and which Nicolas Lebègue slowly reveals to us as a ceremonial master.”