Although the German Baroque, in its transition from chaotic to orderly, is always impressive; and the Italian, though widely admired by good and intelligent friends, bores me; it is the quirky, unfinished but quaint English Baroque, and the fantastically ornate, seductive French, that I most enjoy. Lully, Rameau, Charpentier: I like the big stage works, as you will notice – operas, ballets, and grandly dramatic motets. I also play a lot of Couperin, D'Anglebert, and others when I can get at a keyboard.
Charpentier is in some ways a late arrival on the scene: I can remember as few as fifteen years ago he was generally treated as an also-ran, as an obscure fellow-traveller, with few performances or available recordings. Partly because of Bill Christie and Les Arts Florissants, and because the French classical music industry has seized on him lately, there are now multiple recordings of many of his works. On the CD player at the moment is Christie's recording of the aptly named Les Plaisirs de Versailles, plus a couple of pastoralettas – and it is hard to imagine a more coyly decadent term for a musical genre than 'pastoraletta': it sounds exactly like Marie-Antoinette dressed up as a shepherdess, with real but rose-scented milk in the pails. (Yes, I know, she was a century later, but you get the idea.) But the music is not so terminally cute – the rich darkness of the strings, the minor keys, the graceful but insistent rhythms create a considerably finer world than the title implies.
Much of my experience of this period is personal, not professional: I once wanted to write my opinions about the aesthetic implications of French Baroque, but Susan dissuaded me – she is more of an expert in the area, and she always seemed to think my interpretations and opinions were a bit off kilter, ultimately too modernist. Then there was lunch with Bill Christie, some years ago, in Berkeley: I told him how much I loved his recordings, but his response was to make an extended pass at me – until I told him about being HIV+, at which point he suddenly left me alone. In any case, though I haven't hung out with French Baroque specialists very much, I've made my own connection with it.
Playing Couperin on the piano, or if you're lucky on the harpsichord: the deep structure is predictable, static, but well-made, the harmonies constantly braking and holding time in place; but the ornaments, the melodic intricacies, give time an atomistic density, a sensuality, that I love. Perhaps it's because I am a fairly inept player (Bennett, whose office is down the hall from mine, races fluently through Beethoven sonatas on a daily basis, which are works I couldn't ever stand – their long-winded rationality wears me out); but the sheer fiddly richness of each measure, with its tragic minor resolutions, long suspensions and plangent discords, always makes me very happy.
No, not happy: but filled with, well, plaisir....