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Louis-Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705 - 1770): "Brilliance indéniable - The Virtuoso Violin in the Court of Louis XV"

Alana Youssefian, violin; Le Bien-Aimé

rec: Feb 25 - 27, 2019, Haddon Heights, N.J., Church of St Rose of Lima
AVIE - AV2412 (© 2020) (67'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata for violin and bc in b minor, op. 1,3; Sonata for violin and bc in E flat, op. 1,6; Sonata for violin and bc in c minor, op. 1,8; Symphony in G, op. 6,1a; Symphony in E flat, op. 14,2a; Symphony in G, op. 14,6a

Sources: Premier livre de sonates, op. 1, 1734; VI symphonies dans le goût italien en trio, op. 6, 1740; Second livre de symphonies dans le goût italien en trio, op. 14, 1748

Stephen Goist, violina; Matt Zucker, cello; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord

In the early 18th century, French music life started to embrace the Italian style. This manifested itself in the emergence of new genres, such as the solo concerto and the chamber cantata. In addition, two instruments especially associated with the Italian style, the violin and the cello, enjoyed a growing popularity. In the second quarter of the century, three violin virtuosos played a crucial role at the music scene: Jean-Marie Leclair, Jean-Pierre Guignon and Louis-Gabriel Guillemain. They had in common that they were pupils of Giovanni Battista Somis, the famous violin teacher in Turin.

At the age of 24, Guillemain started to work in the opera orchestra of Lyon. Between 1725 and 1738 he was the first violinist of the Académie de Musique in Dijon. He found a patron in Monsieur Chartraire de Bourbonne, who gave him the opportunity to travel to Italy again to broaden his musical horizon. In 1734 he published his first collection of sonatas, for violin and basso continuo, which he dedicated to his patron. Shortly thereafter he went to Paris, where he entered the service of the court of Louis XV, in a modest function. After some time he rose to the status of one of the best-paid musicians at the court. That did not prevent his getting into financial difficulties. In 1770 he died under unclear circumstances. It is generally assumed that the financial worries were too much for him and that he committed suicide.

Whereas Leclair and Guignon made a name for themselves both as composers and as performers, Guillemain seems to have suffered from stage fright, and did not often perform in public, although performances as a soloist in some of his own concertos at the Concert Spirituel are documented. However, his reputation was largely based on his compositions. His oeuvre includes eighteen collections of instrumental music, printed between 1734 and 1762, and a ballet-pantomime, first performed in Paris in 1748. In addition, some pieces are included in anthologies.

The printed collections show some of the stylistic developments which took place in his lifetime. The earliest collections include solo sonatas and trio sonatas with basso continuo, as well as duets for two instruments without accompaniment. In the 1740s, Guillemain started to write sonatas for an obbligato harpsichord and violin, an increasingly popular genre at the time. Philippe Grisvard and Johannes Pramsohler recorded three such sonatas from his Op. 13. Alana Youssefian and Le Bien-Aimé rather focus on the first printed edition, a set of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, and three symphonies from the Op. 6 (1740) and the Op. 14 respectively.

The sonatas Op. 1 undountedly bear witness to Guillemain's own skills. Adam Cockerham, in his liner-notes, states: "Elements of Guillemain's Op.1 such as double and triple stops, double trills, batteries and an array of string crossings test the boundaries of what is possible on the violin. Friedrich Marpurg wrote Guillemain was 'a man for whom no difficulty is too great ... his compositions are quite bizarre, and he studies every day to make them still even more bizarre' (Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik, Berlin, 1754–78)." Whereas chamber music - and especially pieces for the transverse flute - were usually intended for amateurs, these sonatas were beyond the capabilities of most of them. They vary in the number of movements: the third sonata has four, No. 8 has three, and the sixth sonata just two. The Sonata in b minor follows more or less the traditional Corellian model in its order of movements: slow, fast, slow, fast. However, the third movement is called gratioso, and is performed here in the tempo of an andante. The two fast movements are notable for the virtuosity of the basso continuo part. In these movements, the violin and the bass are treated on almost equal footing. The middle movement of the Sonata in c minor has an ABA structure; in particular in the B section, the violin part includes double stopping. This technique is even more frequently applied in the Sonata in E flat, which opens with an adagio, followed by an allemanda. Although these sonatas show the influence of the Italian style, they are not free of French elements either. Therefore they reflect the ideal of the goûts réunis.

In his three symphonies Guillemain specifically refers to the Italian style. The two collections, published as his Op. 6 and Op. 14, are entitled symphonies dans le goût italien. This is a way to distinguish them from the traditional French use of the word simphonie, which referred to an ensemble of instruments of various kinds. Chamber cantatas often had the addition avec simphonie, indicating that one or several melody instruments were involved. The symphonies Opp. 6 and 14 are of the Italian sinfonia type: such compositions may be intended for a chamber ensemble or for a larger formation. These pieces by Guillemain have the addition en trio. This means that they can be played by three instruments, but - as Cockerham mentions in the booklet - when they were performed during public concerts, such as at the Concert Spirituel, wind instruments (flutes, oboes) could be added. They are written in the galant idiom. They include some polyphonic episodes, but the two violins often play in parallel motion or in unison. Here and there the first violin gets a solo passage, which may be especially effective if the symphonies are played by a larger ensemble. The most notable example is the Symphony in G, op. 6,1, whose second movement includes an extended solo episode for the first violin, and which ends with a section full of dissonances. The last movement has some short cadenzas.

Although Guillemain is not that badly represented on disc, for many music lovers he may be an almost entirely unknown quantity. That is regrettable, as his music is not in any way inferior to that of, for instance, Leclair. I already referred to a recording of three sonatas by Philippe Grisvard and Johannes Pramsohler, who give a good impression of Guillemain's qualities. This disc is a nice complement, presenting three of the first sonatas that were printed, in which these qualities already reveal themselves in abundance. Alana Youssefian is a brilliant violinist, who explores the qualities of these sonatas to the full. The tempi are well chosen and there is some nice dynamic shading. The performers do justice to the differences between the solo sonatas and the symphonies. The latter are more 'conventional', so to speak, but in their relative simplicity, they are very attractive, and that comes well off in these performances. In the three members of Le Bien-Aimé Alana Youssefian has found the ideal partners for this recording project. May more recordings follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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Alana Youssefian

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