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"Concertos pour violon - The beginnings of the violin concerto in France"

Johannes Pramsohler, violin
Ensemble Diderot

rec: Dec 16 - 18, 2020, Toblach, Euregio Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax - ADX 13782 (© 2021) (70'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jacques AUBERT (1689-1753): Concerto for four violins, cello and bc in D, op. 26,3; Concerto for four violins, cello and bc in e minor, op. 26,4; Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): Concerto comique No. 25 in g minor 'Les Sauvages et la Furstemberg'a; André-Joseph EXAUDET (1710-1762): Concerto à cinq instruments in E flat; Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E flat; Jean-Baptiste QUENTIN (c1690-c1742): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in A, op. 12,1

Sources: Jean-Baptiste Quentin, Sonates en trio et a quatre parties pour violons, [ou] flutes traversieres, viole et basse continue, op. 12, after 1729

Georges Barthel, transverse flutea; Roldán Bernabé, Mario Konaka, Simone Pirri, violin; Alexandre Baldo, viola; Gulrim Choï, cello; François Leyrit, double bass; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

France and the violin in the baroque era - that is a complicated story. During the 17th century the Italian style, and with it its main exponent, the violin, conquered most of the continent, except France. Until the early 18th century there was a strong resistance towards the Italian style, which was considered extravagant in expression and virtuosity. (The picture is a little more differentiated, as there were certainly some admirers of Italian music, such as Charpentier and De Brossard, but that is a different story.) The violin was used for dance music and in the opera orchestra, but it was not given solo roles. This also explains why there were no players in France who had the skills for performing technically demanding music, as was written in Italy. Instrumental music in France was for performances by amateurs in the intimate surroundings of the salons.

Around 1700 the resistance towards the Italian style started to wane. Composers who sympathised with it and attempted to include elements of it in their own music, such as François Couperin and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, published their music, and especially the latter's sonatas are considerably more demanding than what the French were used to. It took some time, though, before the solo concerto made its appearance in the music scene. The Concert Spirituel, which was founded in 1725, played a crucial role in the process which led to the acceptance of this genre, which was basically an Italian phenomenon. Antonio Vivaldi developed into one of the most popular composers in this concert series, and especially his Four Seasons were regularly performed. At the same time French violinists went to Italy to further their skills, and one of the most sought-after teachers was Giovanni Battista Somis in Turin, who was the teacher of Jean-Marie Leclair, who became one of the most prominent composers of solo concertos for the violin.

Leclair's concertos are quite popular among today's violinists, and are available in several recordings. These always include the twelve concertos Leclair published as his Opp. 7 and 10 respectively. The disc under review here includes a concerto that has not been published and has been preserved separately in manuscript. It is a technically demanding piece, which has some thematic similarity with the fourth concerto from the Op. 10. Interestingly, the middle movement (largo) is for violin and basso continuo, and this is reminiscent of Vivaldi's concertos, whose slow movements also often omit tutti parts.

The programme includes two concertos by Jacques Aubert, who probably was the son of Jean Aubert, a member of the 24 Violons du Roi. Like Leclair he was educated as a dancing master and a violinist. He wrote ballet music, and in 1719 he published his first book of violin sonatas. From 1727 to 1746 he was a member of the 24 Violons du Roi; in 1728 he also joined the Académie Royale de Musique and was appointed first violinist in the orchestra of the Opéra, a position he held for the next 24 years. In 1729 he made his debut at the Concert Spirituel and regularly performed there until 1740. In 1734 he published a set of six violin concertos as his Op. 17; these were the first violin concertos to be published in France (which does not imply that they were the first written there). It was followed in 1739 by four concertos Op. 26. The scoring of these ten concertos is the same: four violins, cello and basso continuo. However, the first violin has the lead and plays the role of soloist. Johannes Pramsohler, in his liner-notes, states that "Aubert fills that which the absent violas would play with the low registers of the violins". The scoring rather reminds me of the traditional line-up of the French opera orchestra, in which the middle voices were divided among three instruments: haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and quinte de violon. The two concertos from the Op. 26 included here attest to the growing interest in virtuosic solo music for the violin. Notable is not only the scoring, but also the fact that both concertos - one in three, the other in four movements - include a movement with the indication gracioso. The Concerto in D ends with a chaconne, which was very popular in France, but it has an Italian title - ciaccona - which reminds us that this form was something the French and the Italians had in common. The Concerto in e minor closes with a movement called carillon, another popular form in which bells are imitated by repeated notes or figures, here both in the solo part and in the other string parts as well as the basso continuo.

A remarkable piece is the Concerto à cinq instruments in E flat by André-Joseph Exaudet. He was from Rouen and worked there all his life, in the 1740s as first violinist of the Académie Royale de Musique de Rouen. However, he had a second residence in Paris. In 1744 there his first music was published, a set of six violin sonatas. Later he seems to have moved to Paris, where he joined the orchestra of the Opéra and played at the Concert Spirituel. His violin concerto is his only contribution to this genre and is technically demanding. "[Already] the soloist's first interjection, with sixth position and jeté bowing, makes one sit up and take notice, and the written-out cadenza at an unexpected place and in an unexpected key (on the relative minor of the dominant) demands double stops of ninths and tenths". The concerto has been preserved in three sources, and the differences between two of them and the one from Dresden (played here) raises questions about its authenticity. The Dresden manuscript includes a written out fantasia of 112 bars which could well be an addition by the concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel. This insertion shows strong similarities with the capricci which Pietro Antonio Locatelli added to his set of violin concertos.

Jean-Baptiste Quentin is another little-known composer. Little is known about him, but he was a violinist at the Paris Opéra in 1718. His oeuvre is considerable: Seventeen sets with sonatas were published in Paris between 1724 and around 1740. The Concerto in A is the first of the Sonates en trio et à quatre parties op. 12. It has some similarities with the ripieno concertos by Vivaldi, but the first violin is designated as a solo in the parts. Especially the first allegro includes an impressive solo episode.

The disc ends with a piece that is different from the rest of the programme, as it omits a real solo part. It is one of many concertos comiques which Michel Corrette wrote as entr'acte music for the Comédie Française. This concerto is based on some then popular melodies. The instruments are treated on equal footing, and the violins are joined by a transverse flute.

Johannes Pramsohler and his Ensemble Diderot are responsible for quite a number of recordings which focus on little-known repertoire. That is the case here as well. Although only two of the pieces are first recordings, most of the other pieces are hardly-known, and that also goes for their composers. The main exception is Corrette's concerto, which is quite popular among ensembles. This disc also tells the fascinating story of the evolution of the violin in France from a minor instrument to one of the main instruments of the second half of the 18th century, and the emergence of a French violin school. As we have come to expect from these performers, we get technically brilliant and musically compelling performances. This is music making of the highest order, and anyone who likes the (baroque) violin, should add this disc to his collection. The excellent liner-notes by Pramsohler are an important part of this production, as they put the music and the composers in their historical context and help to understand what the music performed here is about.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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