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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697 - 1764): "Trio Sonatas Op. 4"

Ensemble Diderot

rec: July 23 - 26, 2019, Kaiserslautern, SWR Studio
Audax - ADX 13724 (© 2020) (76'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in d minor, op. 4,1; Sonata II in B flat, op. 4,2; Sonata III in d minor, op. 4,3; Sonata IV in F, op. 4,4; Sonata V in g minor, op. 4,5; Sonata VI in A, op. 4,6

Source: Sonates en trio, op. 4, c1731-33

Johannes Pramsohler, Roldán Bernabé, violin; Gulrim Choï, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

Most composers of the baroque era contributed to several genres popular in their time. Jean-Marie Leclair is one of the few exceptions. He composed just one opera, and some cantatas by his pen seem to have been lost. Instrumental music was his main interest, and in particular music for violin. This can be explained by the fact that he himself was a violinist, and that throughout his life he worked in this capacity at home and abroad.

He was educated as a dancer and violinist, but his career took a decisive turn when he decided to study with the famous Italian violin teacher Giovanni Battista Somis, who was a pupil of Arcangelo Corelli, across Europe considered as the most important exponent of the Italian style in instrumental music. Leclair's own oeuvre reflects the ideal of the goûts réunis, the mixture of French and Italian elements. He developed into a true virtuoso, the French counterpart of Pietro Antonio Locatelli. Once, they performed both at the court in Kassel, and a witness observed clear differences between them. As much as Leclair was influenced by the Italian style, he always took some distance to what he considered extreme features of violinistic virtuosity.

He expressed this in the preface to his fourth book of solo sonatas. "All those who would like to perform this work according to the author's taste must strive to find the character of each piece, as well as the right tempo and quality of sound suited to each piece. An important point, which cannot be too much insisted upon, is to avoid that confusion of notes that people add to vocal and expressive pieces, and that serve only to disfigure them. It is no less ridiculous to change the tempos of two rondeaux written to go together, and to play the major one faster than the minor: one may certainly brighten the major one by the manner of playing it, but this can be done without rushing the tempo".

Johannes Pramsohler, in his liner-notes to the recording under review here, also refers to this preface, and mentions what Leclair has to say about the way allegros should be played. "By the term Allegro, I do not intend an unduly fast tempo, but rather a lively tempo. Those, who rush too much, particularly in the character pieces like in the first part of the fugues in 4/4 time, make the melody trivial instead of preserving the nobility."

In his four books of solo sonatas we meet Leclair the virtuoso. These works were intended for his own performances in the first place, and their publication may have served first and foremost professional colleagues across Europe. Traditionally, trio sonatas were aimed at the growing number of musical amateurs, who liked to play at home, in the circle of family and friends. Such pieces were usually less demanding than solo sonatas. That is also the case with Leclair's trio sonatas, although the six sonatas Op. 4 are not without technical requirements. That is, for instance, the case in the Sonata No. 6 in A, which includes double stopping in both violins, something that was rather rare in trio sonatas. Pramsohler observes that "[although] Leclair largely dispensed with technical difficulties such as one finds in his solo sonatas, this is in no way a 'musique d'une execution facile', as he described his Première Recréation, which appeared later."

All the sonatas are in four movements, in the usual order. The exception is the Sonata No. 3 in d minor, which comprises five. The second movement is always a fugue, in all - except the third sonata - with the tempo indication allegro ma non troppo, which reflects the remarks about the tempo of allegro movements quoted above. Pramsohler also points out that Leclair generally avoids Italian pathos in his slow movements. "French are above all the third movements: elegant Airs and gavottes in place of heavy Largos, which are provided with precisely placed ornaments and often give the second violin a virtuoso accompaniment part". This is relevant in that in Italian trio sonatas the second violin often plays literally second fiddle, whereas the two violins in Leclair are treated on equal footing. The indication air is indeed a token of lyricism. The Aria of the Sonata No. 5 in g minor, which is the longest movement of the entire set, is a superb example. It is followed by one of the most dramatic movements (giga), creating a striking contrast.

Leclair's solo sonatas are far more frequently performed and recorded than his trio sonatas. However, this Op. 4 set is an impressive testimony of his art. It has been recorded before at least twice (Musica Alta Ripa, MDG, 1993; Ensemble Rosasolis, Musica Ficta, 2013), but there is certainly room for this new recording, which is also a testimony of the art of this ensemble. The tempi of the second movements are here generally slower than in the recordings I just mentioned, reflecting what Leclair wrote about this kind of movements. The two violinists play with their usual intensity, and the ensemble is immaculate, as always, also thanks to the outstanding support by cello and harpsichord.

As far as the trio sonatas Op. 4 are concerned, this recording has to be first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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