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CD reviews

"French Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin"

Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Johannes Pramsohler, violin

rec: April 25 - 30, 2016, Kaiserslautern, Studio SWR
Audax Records - ADX 13710 (2 CDs) (© 20158) (1.56'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1724-1799): Sonata I in g minor; Charles-François CLÉMENT (c1720-1782): Sonata I in c minor; Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): Sonata IV in e minor, op. 25,4; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La de Casaubon; La de May; La de Valmalette; La Du Tailly; La Madin; Ouverture; Louis-Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705-1770): Sonata IV in c minor, op. 13,4; Sonata V in D, op. 13,5; Sonata VI in g minor, op. 13,6; (Simon-)Luc MARCHAND (1709-1799): Suite No. 1 in a minor, op. 1,1; Jean-Joseph Cassanéa DE MONDONVILLE (1711-1772): Sonata I in g minor, op. 3,1; Sonata VI in A, op. 3,6;

Sources: Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon, op. 3, 1740; Michel Corrette, Sonates pour le clavecin avec un accompagnement de violon, op. 25, 1742; Charles-François Clément, Sonates en trio pour un clavecin et un violon, 1743; Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon, op. 13, 1745; (Simon-)Luc Marchand, Pièces de clavecin avec accompagnement de violon, hautbois, violoncelle ou viole, divisées en six Suittes dont les deux dernières sont pour le clavecin seul, 1747; Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Livre contenant des pièces de différents genres d'orgue et de clavecin, 1749; Jacques Duphly, Troisième Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, 1756

One of the features of the new style which emerged in Italy around 1600 was instrumental virtuosity. Composers started to write technically challenging pieces for single instruments, such as the cornett and the violin. Whereas the cornett largely disappeared from the scene towards the end of the 17th century, the violin became the principle instrument across Europe. The main exception was France: until the early 18th century it was almost exclusively used for dance music. Towards the end of the century some composers started to write music for violin(s) and basso continuo, such as François Couperin and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. However, the first printed editions appeared after the turn of the century, when the musical climate began to change and the French gradually warmed to the Italian style, of which the violin was one of the main symbols (soon to be followed by the cello).

In most countries violin parts were written to a basso continuo; that was the standard well into the mid-18th century. However, in the second quarter of the century the first pieces for harpsichord with violin were written. In Germany Bach composed his sonatas for harpsichord and violin, probably well before his settlement in Leipzig, but as they were not published until 1800, they may have had little influence outside the circle of his sons and pupils. That was different in France, where in 1734 Jean-Jacques Cassanéa de Mondonville published his Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon op. 3, which were undoubtedly the inspiration for Jean-Philippe Rameau to compose his Pièces de clavecin en concert.

In the next decades more such music was written. Whereas most chamber music was intended for the growing market of musical amateurs, a part of the repertoire for harpschord and violin was definitely out of reach for them. That goes in particular for the sonatas written by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, himself one of the true violin virtuosos of the mid-18th century, who was Jean-Marie Leclair's equal and, like him, a pupil of the famous Turin violin pedagogue Giovanni Battista Somis. The set of discs reviewed here includes three sonatas from his Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon, op. 13 of 1745. Again, these sonatas are clearly inspired by Mondonville's sonatas op. 3, and like those reflect the influence of the Italian style. Not only the violin part is technically challenging, that also goes for the harpsichord part. The booklet quotes the 19th-century Belgian musicologist Fétis, who wrote: "It is without doubt due to the manifold difficulties in his works that they have not found success. Only few violinists of that epoch were able to play them". He probably did not know other pieces by Guillemain, which are more intended for a wider range of customers. It is notable that the three sonatas included here have a middle movement with the title aria, and two of them with the addition gratioso. That must have been a special preference of the composer, as he used this description also in all six quartets of his Op. 12 (to be reviewed in due course). These movements are not so much slow, as one probably would expect in Italian-influenced sonatas, but rather require a moderately fast tempo, probably something like an andante.

This set of discs offers a survey of the various publications which appeared in the 1740s and 1750s. In 1742 Michel Corrette, one of the most prolific composers of his time, published a set of six Sonates pour le clavecin avec un accompagnement de violon op. 25. In Corrette's work-list in New Grove they are not ranked among the chamber music, but the harpsichord works. That would be the correct decision, if the violin part would have been ad libitum, meaning that it can be omitted. In the second half of the 18th century many such pieces were written, but in these sonatas the violin part is obligatory. In the liner-notes to their complete recording of this collection, Michael Jarvis and Paul Luchkow state: "The violin, although described as an accompanimental instrument, is also more than just that: Corrette skilfully uses the violin to enhance the orchestral texture and dynamic nuance of the harpsichord. Imitative writing between the two instruments is very tight, yet playful, with the violin sharing more of a motivic and melodic role in the ensemble". All of these sonatas have titles; the Sonata IV in e minor included here has the addition 'Les Amusemens d'Apollon chez le Roi Admète'. King Admetus of Pherae in Thessaly, being renowned for his hospitality, is served by Apollo, when he was sentenced to a year of servitude as punishment for killing the serpent Delphyne. Particularly interesting is the interpretation of the closing movement. When Admetus neglected to pay tribute to the goddess Artemis, Apollo's sister Artemis filled the king's bedchamber with snakes, until Apollo convinced her to relent, which Corrette possibly had in mind when he composed the third movement. And indeed, in the many garlands in the parts of both harpsichord and violin, one could probably see the wriggling of snakes.

Charles-François Clément is undoubtedly one of the least-known composers in this recording. Little is know about him; his oeuvre is rather small, comprising music for the stage, a few vocal and istrumental works and also three treatises. He may have been a pupil of Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray, to whom he dedicated his Sonates en trio pour un clavecin et un violon of 1743, being the first to use the term sonates en trio for this kind of scoring. In this set the French style dominates, despite the Italian titles of the three movements.

Another unknown quantity is (Simon-)Luc Marchand, not to be confused with Louis Marchand, the famous organist from the early 18th century. He was born into a musical dynasty, which goes back to the 17th century: Jean Marchand, who died in 1691, was a violinist in the service of the court. Luc was also a violinist, as well as an organist. His only known music is the collection Pièces de clavecin avec accompagnement de violon, hautbois, violoncelle ou viole, which was printed in 1747. The various instruments mentioned in the title are not alternatives: they are allocated to the various sonatas; the first of the set is for harpsichord and violin. It opens with an ouverture, which is followed by two character pieces, the second being a depiction of the Carillon du Parnasse.

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was mainly known as a virtuosic organist, and especially famous for his improvisations of Noëls. Today his reputation is not the best, as he is often associated with a general decline of the French harpsichord school. He wrote not much chamber music; in 1779 he published a set of quartets for keyboard with accompaniment of two violins and bass and two horns ad libitum. The Livre contenant des pièces de différents genres d'orgue et de clavecin of 1749, which has been preserved in manuscript, includes three Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon, the first of which is played here. It is in three movements; like in Guillemain's sonatas the middle movement is called aria gratiosa.

The latest composer is Jacques Duphly, exclusively known for his harpsichord works. In the 1740s he settled in Paris. There is no sign of him taking any official job. He probably made a living as a teacher among the upper echelons of society. Contemporaries state that he was one of the greatest keyboard players of his time, alongside Rameau and Balbastre. In the last decades of his life he led more or less a secluded life, and soon he was almost forgotten. In his third book of harpsichord pieces he included six items which can be played either on harpsichord alone or with an additional violin. They are early examples of a genre which was to become very popular in the 1770s and 1780s: pieces for keyboard with violin ad libitum. The violin adds colour and dynamic shading to the musical discourse. The emergence of the fortepiano, with its colour palette and dynamic possibilities, made this role of the violin redundant, and this may have resulted in the decline of this genre towards the end of the century.

This production only offers a glimpse of a considerable repertoire of pieces for harpsichord and violin written in France in the mid-18th century. It is a fascinating world that it brought to life here. It is hard to imagine better advocates for this repertoire than Philippe Grisvard and Johannes Pramsohler. I was impressed by Grisvard's recording of harpsichord pieces by George Frideric Handel and here he shows the same qualities in the often demanding keyboard parts. Pramsohler is best-known for his performances of German and Italian music, but here he shines just as brightly. He doesn't make the music sound too Italian or German, avoiding too large dynamic contrasts. He also adapts quite effectively to the harpsichord. The balance between the two instruments is a matter of debate. 'With accompaniment of the violin' could be interpreted in the sense that the harpsichord is the dominant instrument and the violin has to take a back seat. Here the interpreters take a more balanced approach.

This is a production which is of the greatest importance with regard to repertoire. The performances are of the highest order and the best possible case for this relatively unknown music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Johannes Pramsohler

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