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La Flèche has a distinguished pedigree. The Jesuit college founded by Henri IV in 1603 counted René Descartes among its alumni; in 1808 Napoleon transferred to La Flèche a military academy originally established at the ex-royal convent of Saint-Cyr (at one time the workplace of organist Louis-Nicolas Clérambault). The old college chapel of La Flèche, completed in 1622, was provided in 1640 with an organ by Ambroise Levasseur on a newly constructed gallery. This instrument, restored and augmented in 1772, survived the revolution nearly (but not quite) intact, paradoxically thanks to the radical Jacobins who took over the complex, but fell foul of well-intentioned but intrusive restorations, particularly by Gonzalez in the 1930s. The latest restoration, in 1996, returned the instrument more or less to its original state – a fine specimen of the French classical tradition nested within a working French military academy.

The combination of instrument and the artist quicken high expectations. David Ponsford, much-respected expert on early keyboard music, has just published a definitive study on French baroque organ music, and brings to the repertoire a winning combination of flair and rigour. The instrument is well chosen: its sonorities are well moderated and authoritative, and Ponsford coaxes persuasive and unforced readings from it. Phrasing and ornamentation are supple, and he gives the music ample space to breathe without slackening the rhythmic spring. The two Couperin organ masses are included, the convents paired with Du Mage’s Premier livre d’orgue in the first disc, and the parishes in the second together with Ponsford’s idiomatic arrangement of instrumental versets for Kyrie and Gloria by Charpentier. Costs and logistics presumably militated against the inclusion of beautifully ornamented alternatim chant verses (perhaps the cadets might have obliged), so this is something that the listener will need to provide. I direct the reader towards Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers’s editions of the secular and monastic graduals (1696), found in e-facsimile on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s wonderful Gallica: www.gallica.bnf.fr (search for ‘Nivers Graduale’).

MAGNUS WILLIAMSON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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