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CD reviews

"The Musicians' Table"

Ensemble Battistin

rec: Sept 29 - Oct 3, 2005 & Sept 25 - 29, 2006, New Norcia (Western Australia), Benedictine Monastery (St Ildephonsus Chapel)
ABC Classics - 476 6996 (© 2009) (49'49")

Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1689-1755): Sonata for cello and bc in d minor, op. 50,4bde [1]; Sonata for violin, cello and bc in D, op. 50,6bdef [1]; Louis-Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705-1770): Sonata for 2 violins in a minor, op. 5,1 [2]bcf; Pierre-Danican PHILIDOR (1681-1731): Suite for transverse flute, violin and bc in Gabdf; Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc No 2 in F 'La Vénus'abdf [3]

(Sources: [1] Boismortier, VI Sonates, op. 50, 1734; [2] Guillemain, IIe Livre de Sonates, 1739; [3] Rebel, Recueil de 12 sonates à II et III parties, 1712)

Kate Clark, transverse flutea; Paul Wrightb, Sophie Gentc, violin; Suzanne Wijsmand, Noeleen Wrighte, cello; Stewart Smith, harpsichordf

The Ensemble Battistin has devoted a series of discs to French music of the 18th century under the title 'The Perfection of Music - Masterpieces of the French Baroque'. Several of these have been positively reviewed here, and this fifth and last volume is no exception. It concentrates on music which shows the growing influence of the Italian style. For a long time the French had resisted the Italian taste, which had taken most of Europe by storm. It was only the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully - himself of Italian birth - and the waning influence of Louis XIV which made composers feel free to incorporate Italian elements in their compositions. The result was a style of composing which was called goûts réunis, styles reunited.

One of the first composers writing in this style was François Couperin. It was a good decision not to include him in this programme as his music is frequently performed and recorded. Instead we get here, for instance, a trio sonata by Jean-Féry Rebel, who was a famous violinist and composed a set of sonatas for violin and bc, which were highly appreciated. Although the Sonata No 2 in F was published in 1712 it was written as early as 1695, which makes Rebel one of the first in France to use the form of the trio sonata which was strongly associated with Italy, and especially with Arcangelo Corelli. (Although this is not quite correct as is explained here.) The more conservative music lovers remained sceptical about the Italian influence as they were afraid it would undermine "good taste". The booklet quotes the writer and amateur musician Jean Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville, who expresses this feeling: "Rebel has indeed caught some of the flair and the fire of the Italians, but has the taste and sense to temper these by French wisdom and gentleness, and he has abstained from those frightening and monstrous chutes [falling appoggiaturas] that are the delight of the Italians".

More unashamedly Italian are the trio sonatas by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, one of the most prolific and best-selling composers of France in the first half of the 18th century. Two sonatas from his opus 50 are performed here. The most remarkable is the Sonata for cello and bc in d minor, since the cello was a purely Italian instrument which was only used after some Italians brought the instrument to Paris, like Michele Mascitti. Boismortier asked advice from the cellist Pierre Sansévin while composing his cello sonatas, and as a result he really explores the instrument's capabilities, like double stopping and virtuosic passage work. The Sonata in D is notable in particular for its scoring for violin and cello with basso continuo. Treating both instruments on equal terms was foreshadowing the emancipation of the cello from its subordinate position.

Sonatas for two instruments without basso continuo were also a novelty. Boismortier wrote a number of them, and so did Leclair and Guillemain. The latter had been in Italy to study with Giovanni Battista Somis and was the first to compose this kind of sonatas. The Sonata in a minor, op. 5,1 consists of two contrasting movements, the first of which is mostly contrapuntal whereas in the second movement the two instruments play largely in parallel thirds.

The disc opens with the most traditional work on this disc, the Suite in G, written by Pierre-Danican Philidor, a member of a large family of musicians and composers. They were closely associated with music making at the royal court in Versailles, and that explains Pierre-Danican's adherence to the traditional French style. Despite its trio structure it is a very French piece, as its name of 'suite' indicates. The inclusion of this piece offers the listener the possibility to hear for himself how much the character of instrumental music in France changed during the first decades of the 18th century.

I already indicated this review would be positive. There are many reasons to recommend this disc. Historically it is very interesting as it shows the stylistic change in France in the early 18th century. The programme has been well put together, offering a wide variety of styles and forms. The choice of composers also deserves applause as most of them don't frequently appear on concert programmes and their music is not widely available on disc.

The Ensemble Battistin is a very fine ensemble which impresses with its impeccable technique and fine sense of style. These are lively and engaging performances, characterised by a strongly gestural style of playing, in which the rhythms are well exposed and the expression of the slow movements is fully explored. It is hardly possible to argue more strongly in favour of this repertoire than the Ensemble Battistin does on this disc. It is just a shame the playing time is so short.

Like the previous volumes in this series this disc has a booklet which is exemplary because of the amount of information about the programme as a whole and about every single composition. It also contains biographies of the individual members of the ensemble and a specification of the instruments used in this recording. This is how a booklet should be.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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