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Vesper’s 1610, An Early Music Blog, December 2010

Farr plays a big Keith Hill harpsichord with two buff stops and makes a great case for this music which balances wit with tenderness.

Charlotte Mattax Moersch
Early Music America, October 2010

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727–1799) was one of the most celebrated French harpsichord composers of his time. As Elizabeth Farr writes in her informative liner notes, Balbastre was a student of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Pierre Février in Paris. He performed to great acclaim in the Concert Spirituel, the famous Parisian concert series, and was lauded as well by Charles Burney in his The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771). Writing in the years preceding the French Revolution, Balbastre published his Pièces de clavecin in 1759. As was the fashion of the time, his pieces are musical portraits dedicated to friends, patrons, and other members of the nobility; together they offer a virtual social history of the ancien régime. This recording features the 17 pieces contained in that volume, as well as a handful of works chosen from Livre contenant des pieces de different genre d’orgue et de clavecin of 1749 (Versailles manuscript 264). Other works complete this two-CD set, including Balbastre’s transcriptions of four movements from Rameau’s opera Pygmalion and the well-known ‘Marche des Marseillois et l’air Ça-ira,” composed in 1792 and based on the most popular patriotic tunes of post revolutionary France.

Elizabeth Farr, associate professor of harpsichord and organ at the University of Colorado, captures at once Balbastre’s grandeur, brilliance, and charm. In this unique recording, Farr plays a large harpsichord with 1x16’, 2x8’, 1x4’, and two buff stops. The sheer power of the 16’ makes a stunning effect in such pieces as “La de Caze” and “La Suzanne” and contrasts with the delicacy of the two buff stops, used to be charming effect in the Gavotte Rondeau in G minor, among others. An award-winning keyboardist, Farr plays with delicacy, nuance, and dazzling virtuosity, giving new life to these wonderful works.

James Manheim, September 2010

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was a student of Rameau and, from 1756, organist at Saint-Roch Church at what was then Paris’ edge. The Marquis de Sade was married there in 1763, and one likes to imagine Balbastre playing these flashy, sensualist pieces of keyboard music at the event. Balbastre published a good deal of keyboard music, most of it forgotten except for a few characteristic examples, and this generous two-disc selection by harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Parisian music and culture of the 18th century. The music included covers an extended period from the late 1740s, when Balbastre’s Livre contenant des pieces de different genre d’orgue et de clavecin closely followed Rameau’s detailed little portraits in music, up to the 1790s, when the composer wrote a setting of the Marseillaise and another tune (the Marche des Marseillois et l’air Ça-ira, track 16) in a successful attempt to ingratiate himself with the revolutionary authorities. Aside from a few stabs at coming to grips with the new styles of the Classical era, Balbastre mostly just turned up the volume on the language of the late French Baroque. His music is viscerally exciting but has the quality of hitting you over the head if you listen to two entire CDs of it. Farr gives it a very fine account here. The choice of instrument is quite unorthodox, but it works. She plays a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord with an added 16’ stop, made by iconoclastic Michigan builder Keith Hill. As Hill freely concedes in a short note, neither Balbastre nor any other composer of his time is known to have used such an instrument, and Hill’s argument for using one in this project seems to boil down to the fact that it sounds cool. He could, however, have made a better argument: many of these pieces, and much of Balbastre’s output in general, was presented as suitable for either organ or harpsichord, and a performance that bulks up the harpsichord to organ dimensions makes a good deal of musical sense. At any rate, the instrument rocks, it rolls, it brings the house down. Booming sound from a mysterious small-town Michigan venue called Ploger Hall adds to the generally heated atmosphere. Farr’s own notes, which delve into Balbastre’s music in quite a bit of detail, are given in English and French.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, August 2010

The first attraction that might catch an audiophile’s ear here is the gorgeous wide-range sound of the 16’-stop harpsichord built by Keith Hill according to the design of the 18th century Ruckers harpsichord. Balbastre’s music just seems to cry out for the bass support of the 16’ stop, yet no French harpsichords from his time survive. The augmentation of the usual 8’ and 4’ stops of most harpsichords with the 16’ adds a wonderful richness to the music.

And some fine music it is too. Balbastre was one of the most celebrated keyboardists and composers of the French regime, and he survived the French Revolution—though not in the style to which he had been accustomed. While his charming works are thoroughly in the French harpsichord tradition of the period, he also brought in a strong Italian influence—especially that of Domenico Scarlatti. Balbastre studied composition with Rameau—which helps explain his arrangements of Rameau’s ballet music. Among his own later pupils were Thomas Jefferson’s daughters during their visit to France.

The opening harpsichord pieces Book I are musical character portraits of 17 personalities of the time. The Livre contenant contains 75 works, 24 of them specifically listed for the harpsichord. Balbastre also wrote works for the organ and fortepiano. Following the Revolution he composed patriotic works embracing the principles of the revolution, including the closing march on the second CD which incorporates both the Marseillaise theme and the popular revolutionary song Ça-ira (We will win). [Literally ‘It will be’ – Ed]

Performer Farr specializes in keyboard music for the 17th and 18th centuries, and has previously recorded for Naxos Bach’s works for lute-harpsichord (8.57047–71), and suites for harpsichord by both de la Guerre (8.557654–55)and D’Anglebert (8.570472–73).

Andreas Friesenhagen
Concerto (German music journal for early music), August 2010

Idiomatic in a Natural Way

In Claude Bénigne Balbastre’s music the conclusion of an era always seems to resonate. In the seventeen pieces that the 1759 first and only volume „Pièces de clavecin“ consists of, the golden age of French harpsichord-art is moving towards its end. This doesn’t mean that Balbastre’s music got stuck in the tradition. On the contrary it is full of ideas, noblesse and vital power, here and there also filled with melancholy. But during the quarrel of the buffonists musical France had already opted for the Italian taste and didn’t give the ceremonious character pieces, which also crowd Balbastre’s harpsichord book a chance. How good that the friend and student of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who among other things was in the service of “Monsieur”, the king [Louis XIV]’s brother, had also been proficient in the Italian style. In his handwritten collection of various organ and harpsichord compositions from 1749 a number of pieces bear the caption “Sonata”, in which Domenico Scarlatti left distinct traces. Next to the complete Pièces de clavecin of 1759 Elizabeth Farr presents a small selection out of this little known manuscript.

Two late pieces by Balbastre may claim particular interest: The Prélude non mesuré from the year 1777, possibly the latest one of its kind, in which the composer, through the glasses of his time, views the period of the Couperins and D’Angleberts. And of course the Marche des Marseillois et l’air Ça-ira (1792), a sequence of variations on well known revolution melodies and a cheery tribute to the political situation in France after 1789, which, teacher of some celebrities of the Anciènne Régime, secured Balbastre’s survival in the revolutionary environment.

Unlike Mitzi Meyerson, who in her recording of 2003/04 (Glossa) used a fortepiano next to the harpsichord to underline Balbastre’s position between the epochs, Farr uses a harpsichord for all the pieces. She chose a new instrument by Keith Hill with a 16’—stop which she diligently uses and which substantially contributes to the precious powerful sound encompassing these pieces here. The catch: whether 16’—instruments were at all spread in 18th century France is not sure. No French harpsichord of this kind in any case is known to have survived. Possibly the composer may have had a different sound-ideal in mind as the interpreter as can be gathered from a statement by Charles Burney. During his stay in Paris Balbastre played for him on his Ruckers-harpsichord whose tone had more tenderness than power. The tone of the instrument in this recording is certainly characterized by more power than tenderness.

Apart from this Elizabeth Farr, after her beautiful recording of the Bach Concerti for Solo harpsichord (Naxos 8.572006–07) succeeds again with a competent and inspiring CD. In terms of ornamentation, articulation and rhythmical variability her playing appears idiomatic in a natural way. The “gravitas” which gives distinction to pieces like La de Caze or La Suzanne she communicates—also thanks to her instrument—in a very convincing way, at the same time she doesn’t reject the elegance of the Menuets nor the gallantry of the Rondeaux. The Italianate pieces of the 1749 collection come along in an adequately fluent, less “French” manner than the rest. Considering on top that Farr really understands how to employ a diversified registration in order to produce a very colourful harpsichord sound, this Balbastre is only to be recommended.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2010

I’ve admired Elizabeth Farr’s playing in the past, while reviewing an album of d’Anglebert’s harpsichord suites (Naxos 8.570472–73). Many of the same qualities show up here in the more stylistically traditional pieces. “La d’Hericourt,” for example, provides a textbook illustration of how notes inégales and figurations can assist rather than impede the flow of the music when applied knowledgeably. As much can be said for the Gavotte Rondeau in G Minor, where the subtle firmness of the rhythm keeps matters moving along despite the treble’s flexible phrasing. Her basic tempos are varied, and always appropriate to the character of the music—from the almost Couperin-like tenderness of “La Berville,” to the difficult and assertive gigue “La Lugeac.” Technically, she dispatches everything here with a supreme ease.

As the liner notes state, “Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16’ stop…Claude Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer, which is odd because no French harpsichords with 16’ stops remain from his time.” Whatever the reason for this, the instrument with a 16’ stop by Keith Hill that’s employed here is a fine one, very much in the manner of the rich-sounding ones by Andreas Ruckers II that have survived or been restored to their original state. The results exhibit a beautiful, even tone, with a resounding but natural depth that makes the opening rondeau of “La Boullongne” truly sound. (The second strain is especially notable.) The brightly focused, Italianate “ping” of the shorter stops suit the imported features of Balbastre’s later music, such as the Sonata No. 5 in G Major—or even the treble melody of the supremely giddy “La Monmartel ou La Brunoys.” This is a different Hill instrument from the pair Farr played in her d’Anglebert release, but just as suited to the context.

In short, full praise for this discerning yet spontaneous-sounding series of performances, provided in excellent sound.

Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, June 2010

In his character pieces Balbastre links up with tradition as compositions of this kind had been written before by François Couperin, Jacques Duphly, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray and Jean-Philippe Rameau. But Balbastre’s style is often more virtuosic and full of effects and features considerable contrasts between the various sections. La de Caze and La Bellaud are examples of extraverted and theatrical pieces, whereas La Ségur and La Berryer ou La Lamoignon are much more intimate and elegant. There are several pieces with rustic elements, reminiscent of the musette, the bag-pipe or the hurdy-gurdy.

In particular in the collection of 1749, from which Elizabeth Farr has chosen eight pieces, we find more regular forms like dances (gavotte) and sonatas. In her programme notes Ms Farr suggests the influence of Domenico Scarlatti in this collection, and that is certainly notable in several pieces. Balbastre transcribed four instrumental sections, including the overture, from Rameau’s opera Pygmalion. These are the kind of pieces he also played in the Concert Spirituel. It shows that Rameau was a very popular composer at the time. Balbastre and Rameau were also personal friends. The overture is highly virtuosic and technically demanding, especially because of the frequently repeated chords, to be played in a fast tempo.

Balbastre’s music is sometimes also forward-looking. A remarkable piece is La Malesherbe from the 1759 collection which is almost Mozartian in character. The Prélude is likely the very last specimen of a prélude non mesuré ever composed in France. Stylistically it has not that much to do with the preludes of the past, though. Therefore it rather confirms than refutes Balbastre’s modernity. Previously recordings have been made in which some of his music is played on the fortepiano, and that is certainly a legitimate option.

Grant Chu Covell
La Folia, May 2010

A habitué of the French court, Citizen Balbastre nonetheless survived the French Revolution, having written a theme and variations on the Marseillaise, and died destitute in 1799. Farr’s two-disc sampling offers excerpts from a 1749 collection of organ and harpsichord sonatas and pieces, the 17 selections from his 1759 Pièces de clavecin, and two later works. The distance between the earliest items and the later First Book is wide: Mid-measure enharmonic twists give way to solidly harmonized lines. Balbastre’s Pygmalion arrangement consists of the ouverture and three pieces. Farr employs a modern Keith Hill with a 16’ stop whose grand bass excites. Compared to a random sampling of earlier releases (de la Guerre, Bach, D’Anglebert), Farr has hit her stride.

Uncle Dave Lewis, April 2010

Harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr has been hitting a series of bull’s eyes in her series of discs for Naxos, no doubt aided by the extraordinary sound of the Keith Hill instruments she has been utilizing in these recordings. In Claude-Bénigne Balbastre: Music for Harpsichord, Farr turns her attention to one of the last holdouts of the French harpsichord school, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, a favorite of the aristocracy who managed to avoid the guillotine through composing music that celebrated the French Revolution. Although these characteristics are the ones that fit best in an elevator speech about Balbastre, he enjoyed a long career lasting nearly 50 years, and this recital visits all of his relevant periods in considerable detail. In keeping with the French harpsichord tradition, Balbastre organizes into suites musical portraits named after people within his sphere of influence, but these are not pithy little bon mots in the manner of François Couperin, but are often long works generally averaging 4-8 minutes. The disc also includes a Balbastre-made transcription of movements drawn from his master Jean-Philippe Rameau’s ballet Pygmalion, and these have a big, nearly orchestral sound. The Hill harpsichord Farr plays here has a towering presence and resonance, but Farr has the right idea about how to voice this music utilizing the considerable sonic resources that the Hill instrument provides. One is concerned that the obscurity of the name and the length and breadth of the repertoire presented here might limit the potential audience for Naxos’ Claude-Bénigne Balbastre: Music for Harpsichord; however, anyone interested in Domenico Scarlatti and Rameau should very much enjoy this release.

Craig Zeichner
Early Music America, February 2010

Having a Balbastre

Probably best-known as an organist—Claude-Bénigne Balbastre’s charming noëls are most familiar—but his harpsichord music has enjoyed little acclaim. Balbastre (1727–1799) was a virtuoso organist known for his quirky improvisations during church services and also remembered as a friend to the aristocracy during the final years of the ancient régime. Balbastre taught Marie-Antoinette the harpsichord but fortunately dodged the guillotine blade when revolutionary murderers changed France forever. Fondly remembered by Charles Burney in his Present State of Music in France and Italy, Balbastre died in poverty. Thanks to the always excellent harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr for serving up this recording of Balbastre’s highly engaging music.

Balbastre was certainly no Couperin or Rameau (with whom he studied) but there is plenty of excellent music to enjoy. Fairly typical of the period, Balbastre’s Pièces de clavecin is comprised of little character portraits. These are filled with an equal mix of wit and tenderness. La Castelmore opens with a delicious imitation of country pipers while its second part is marked by its gentle sweetness. The balance of the recording features a sampling of Balbastre’s Livre contenant des pieces de different genre d’orgue et de clavecin, a collection of 75 works for keyboard. Farr plays eight of the 24 works for harpsichord. She closes the program with the Marche des Marseillois et l’air Ça-ira, a set of variations on the revolutionary tunes La Marseillaise and Ça ira. It’s a kind of bittersweet snapshot of Balbastre’s place in revolutionary France.

Farr plays a big Keith Hill harpsichord with two buff stops. Perhaps not exactly the harpsichord Balbastre would have played—French harpsichords with 16’ stops have not survived—but it sure sounds good. Big bass sound and tasteful use of the buff stops make this outstanding at every turn.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Two CDs of this repertoire may look like a case of over-egging the pudding, but I didn’t find it so. If you like the keyboard music of Rameau and Couperin, you should find these CDs to your liking. Indeed, the concluding tracks of CD1 (trs.13–16) offer music from Rameau’s 1748 opera Pygmalion, arranged by Balbastre for the keyboard. Such arrangements, like the wind-band conflations of Mozart’s operas, served as souvenirs for those who had heard the original and as tasters for those who had not. This is some of the most dramatic music on the CDs; the tone of the Overture is particularly well caught here.

Most of the rest of the music is as benign and affable as Balbastre’s second name would imply. I don’t wish to imply, however, that it sounds derivative or banal; as the notes point out, the French harpsichord tradition is modified by the influence of Scarlatti.

The pieces from Book I of the Pièces de clavecin are character portraits. The whole book is dedicated to his pupil Mme de la Caze and her portrait opens the collection and the first of these CDs. It’s a strong piece, though with moments of tenderness, and the contrast between it and its successor on track 2, la d’Héricourt, is well brought out by Farr. Indeed, such variety as there is in the music—probably more apparent to contemporaries than to modern listeners—is well conveyed in these performances.

The last of the aristocratic portraits here is la d’Esclignac of 1787 (CD1, tr.12). The revolution two years later put paid to Balbastre’s employment as a composer of salon pieces; he was to die in poverty ten years later. The final work on the second CD (tr.16) represents his attempt to come to terms with the new régime, a set of variations of the revolutionary tunes la Marseillaise and Ça ira (we will succeed). As played here, it makes a fine conclusion to a recommendable set…The Naxos recording…captures the big sound of the instrument well—at times in that final Marche the bass sonorities almost sound like those of a grand piano. The documentation is informative and readable and sets the seal on a recommendable pair of CDs.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, January 2010

Kudos to the prolific Ms. Farr and Naxos for recording this delightful music by the sadly neglected Balbastre. Though not considered a pillar of baroque music, his works are solidly crafted and tuneful, even if not of the same calibre as the big-name French clavecinists like Rameau and Couperin. Acoustics play a vital role in any recording, and too dry a room or hall can seriously detract from the grandeur of a work. In this recording, however, the opposite is the case: either the micophones were too distant from the instrument, or the recordings took place in a cavernous setting, at the expense of clarity.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2010

Claude-Benigne Balbastre moved in royal circles as a popular performer and composer, a financially well endowed lifestyle that ended with the French Revolution. He was spared execution for his bourgeoise connections due, in some measure, to his daughter’s marriage to an influential revolutionary. A pupil of Rameau, he lived a lengthy life, dying in 1799 at the age of seventy-two, though it was in a state of poverty. His legacy was a sizable catalogue of works mainly for the harpsichord or organ, among them the first book of Pieces de clavecin, a collection of seventeen musical pictures of personalities from the era. It seems that much of his inspiration came from Scarlatti, particularly in the left-hand passages with powerful rising octave scales. Many pictures are lyric, but most are robust and often expressed in dance rhythms that bring a sense of unbridled joy. The exceedingly informative booklet details those pictured therein. To complement this extensive score—as long as two Brahms symphonies—Elizabeth Farr selects eight of the works specifically listed for harpsichord in the 1749 edition of Livre contenant des pieces de different genre d’orgue et de clavecin. Five carry the title sonata, though just contain one short movement, and are interspersed with dances, the two Minuets being particularly attractive. The remaining major item is an arrangement of four movements from Rameau’s opera, Pygmalion, the central section of the overture providing a major challenge to any performer. The disc ends with Balbastre’s peace-offering to the Revolution, Marche des Marseillois et l’air Ca-ira, the ‘national anthem’ being stated and followed by variations. I have previously commented on the clarity and boldness of the playing of the American organist and harpsichordist, Elizabeth Farr, and here she owes much to the use of a massive instrument made by Keith Hill containing one 16’, two 8’, one 4’ stop. There is some movement of focus on the instrument probably from differing sessions, but the recording conveys its elemental power. A must for all harpsichord collections.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group