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MUSIC REVIEW : Harpsichordist Lends French Baroque Life--Up to Its Death

July 11, 1989|KENNETH HERMAN

LA JOLLA — Scholars may debate the influence that the French Revolution exerted on musical history, but harpsichordist Jennifer Paul had no particular thesis to promulgate in her recital Sunday night at the La Jolla Congregational Church. She merely used the upcoming bicentennial of the Revolution as an excuse to play a two-hour survey of French harpsichord music written from the middle of the 17th Century up to the eve of the Revolution. Her sole "revolutionary" link was a 1792 composition by Claude Balbastre based on "La Marseillaise," which she performed as the program's finale.

From a listener's point of view, there are many reasons not to play a program devoted exclusively to French Baroque music. In musical structure, these composers suffered from arrested development, and, after a while, their overly precious suites sound tediously repetitive. Nor is this musical tradition profound or probing. To place these French suites next to the preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach is like comparing "Gilligan's Island" to the comedies of Shakespeare.

Realizing these problems, Paul anchored her recital with a determined and solidly sculpted performance of Antoine Forqueray's Fifth Suite. Although the suite's finale is an exercise in unabashed pictorialism--the Roman God Jupiter hurling thunderbolts to earth--the other movements eschew frivolity and excessive ornamentation.

The abstract character of this Forqueray suite acted as the perfect foil for a set of fiery, flamboyant movements by Joseph Royer. Paul has made this late 18th-Century composer one of her specialties, and her sense of timing and clever juxtaposition made Royer's careening musical melodramas sizzle.

In this set, with its wild arpeggios and chordal pummeling, Paul demonstrated that she had virtuosity to burn and humor to spare.

Three opening works by members of the Couperin family, however, sounded uncharacteristically placid and uninspired. Paul meandered through the "Passacaille" by Louis Couperin, but in a suite on the program's second half by Armand-Louis Couperin, she displayed much more conviction, direction, and sense of style.

Balbastre's "Marche des Marseillois" is actually a "battle piece," a programmatic type favored by late 18th-Century composers of many nationalities. (From America's Revolution, there is one such battle piece called "The Battle of Trenton.") With great relish, Paul shouted out the descriptive titles--e.g., "Charge," "Cannon Firing"--of each section of the Balbastre battle piece, which brought the longish evening to an upbeat conclusion.

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