Monday, April 23, 2007

Couperin's Le Tic-Toc-Choc

Today I was teaching one of my students about the various music periods (and their oh-so-fluid chronological edges) and I remarked how music from the Baroque tends to be dominated almost entirely by J.S. Bach in modern piano recital programs. Often overlooked are the beautiful pieces penned by French Baroque masters such as François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Like Bach's music their keyboard works were (mostly) intended for harpsichord but transfer wonderfully to the piano in most cases. One of Couperin’s most exciting pieces is a little perpetual motion machine called “Le Tic-Toc-Choc”; the French words of the title are a collection of onomatopoetic words that mean pulsing, knocking, and clashing. (The piece is also known as "Les Maillotins" after a family of rope-dancers!) This absolutely characterizes the piece for the keyboardist, since he/she is required to play constant sixteenth notes (“pulsing”) while both hands have notes that overlap within the same octave (“clashing”). The result is a really fascinating rhythmic collage that sounds more complex than what the music in each separate hand suggests. (See a PDF copy of the score here.)

I found a great performance of this piece on YouTube by pianist Grigory Sokolov (winner of the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition and a frequent interpreter of French Baroque music on the piano). Though the video isn’t synced too well to the music, pay careful attention to how Sokolov uses his hands one over the other to play much of this music that stays within a very close range. The quality of the articulation is superbly clean.

It would be rewarding for listeners if more pianists (and their students) tried to venture into this territory more often (I include myself in this criticism). Yes, Bach is very profound, but we shouldn't always exclude the rest of the most attractive Baroque literature. (If any of my students wants to take on some Couperin, step right up and let me know!)


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