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Robert DE VISÉE (1655 - 1733): "La musique de la chambre du Roi"

[I] "La Musique de la Chambre du Roy - Volume 2"
Manuel Staropoli, recorder, transverse flute; Rosita Ippolito, viola da gamba; Massimo Marchese, theorbo (soloa); Manuel Tomadin, harpsichord
rec: June 2012, Rome, Ancelle della Carità
Brilliant Classics - 94437 (© 2013) (54'29")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Chaconnea [3]; Entrée d'Apollona [3]; Suite in C [3]; Suite in D [3]; Suite in e minor [3]; Suite in f minor [3]; Suite in B flat [3]

[II] "La musique de la chambre du Roi - Volume 3"
Lorenzo Cavasanti, recorder; Manuel Staropoli, recorder (solob), transverse flute; Cristiano Contadin, viola da gamba; Massimo Marchese, theorbo; Manuel Tomadin, harpsichord (solob)
rec: Oct 2014, Genoa, Casa Cavasanti
Brilliant Classics - 95029 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.58'30")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Allemande in e minor [3]; Gigue in F [1]; Suite in c minor [1,3]; Suite in c minor [3]; Suite in D [2]; Suite in D [3]; Suite in d minor [1,3]; Suite in d minorb [2]; Suite in G [1]; Suite in g minorc [1]; Suite in g minor [1]; Suite in g minor [2]; Suite in g minor [3]; Suite in g minor [3]; Suite in a minor [1]; Suite in a minor [2]; Suite in a minor [3]

Sources: [1] Livre de guittarre dédié au roy< 1682; [2] Livre de pièces pour la guittarre, 1686; [3] Pièces de théorbe et de luth mises en partition dessus et basse, 1716


Some composers are inextricably connected to a specific genre or a specific instrument. That is the case with Robert de Visée, whose oeuvre is confined to music for a plucked instrument, in his case the theorbo and the guitar. The former is not that surprising: it is derived from the lute which was one of the most revered instruments - alongside the viola da gamba - in France in the 17th century. The guitar had become popular in the second half of the century. Around 1650 Cardinal Mazarin - himself of Italian birth - brought the Italian guitarist Francesco Corbetta to Paris where he became the guitar teacher of Louis XIV. Visée was probably one of his pupils and he soon became close to the court as well. In the 1680s he regularly played at the King's bedside in the evenings. It lasted until 1709 before he received an official appointment, first as a singer and in 1719 as the guitar teacher to the King, then Louis XV.

In 2010 the Italian recorder player and flautist Manuel Staropoli started a project for Brilliant Classics which concerned the recording of chamber music from Visée's pen. If one looks in the work-list in New Grove one won't find any collection of music for other instruments than the theorbo and the guitar. However, the third and last of the books which Visée published (1716) suggests the possibility to perform the pieces with other instruments. Its title is Pièces de théorbe et de luth mises en partition dessus et basse. The preface refers to the harpsichord, the violin and the viola da gamba but no instruments are specifically mentioned on the title page. According to the performers this opens the possibility to use other instruments, such as the recorder and the transverse flute.

As I don't have the first volume in this project and its booklet is not available on the internet I have to rely on the review at MusicWeb International for information about its content. It includes five of the ten suites from the 1716 collection and as the second volume lists also five suites we have to conclude that these two discs comprise the complete collection. The question then is: what do we get in the third volume? We again have here pieces from the 1716 collection but also from the previous two sets of pieces for guitar. "While a number of these pieces feature in the two earlier recordings, we have enriched this CD with the Suites that appeared in the appendix of the earlier printed editions: Livre de Guitarre (1682) and Livre de Pièces pour la Guitare (1686). In view of the fact that these suites constitute an initial group of pieces that De Visée himself transcribed for chamber ensemble, they comprise some interesting versions of certain suites that also featured in the later definitive edition of 1716".

It would be interesting to compare the various versions but that is impossible, partly because I don't have access to the first disc but also because the documentation is rather poor. That is not entirely the fault of the performers: there is no catalogue of Visée's compositions and although his three collections are available from the Petrucci Music Library that does help very little as many pieces have the same title (mostly the usual dances) and it was not common practice to mention the key of a piece.

Whereas volumes one and two consist of suites which include a number of dances in a more or less fixed order the third volume comprises a large number of suites of different length and constitution. The first disc opens with a separate Allemande in e minor which is followed by a suite of three dances from the 1682 collection and a suite from the 1716 collection which consists of five dances. Some have two movements with the same title; in the case of the Suite in a minor (1716; CD 1, tracks 26-30) these are exactly the same: the first time it is played as a harpsichord solo, the second as a solo for recorder and bc. There are other suites where the scoring changes from one movement to the other. In the Suite in g minor which opens the second disc the sarabande (track 4) is performed as a solo for viola da gamba and bc and in the closing menuet the recorder and the viola da gamba play colla parte. In the booklet to the second volume we read: "The chamber ensemble could include various instruments for playing the basso continuo, each of which could be played solo where necessary, to introduce one of the movements of the suite. It was thus possible to widen the range of timbre, and thereby gratify the listener with greater variety". There is also another kind of variety: in some suites Staropoli swiches from the descant to the treble recorder and vice versa from one movement to the other.

The use of various instruments within a single work seems in line with the then common practice, for instance in Couperin's Les Nations. He also indicated that his compositions for instrumental ensemble could be played as harpsichord solos or with two harpsichords. This is an indication of the flexibility in regard to scoring which seems to be a feature of French music at the time. Therefore the practices in these recordings seem fully justified. De Visée's music is of excellent quality and that comes to the fore in these ensemble performances as well, also thanks to the lively playing by Staropoli and his colleagues. Every lover of French music will certainly enjoy these discs. The second volume includes two pieces played on the theorbo by Massimo Marchese; they give the opportunity to become acquainted with the 'original' Visée.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Lorenzo Cavasanti
Massimo Marchese
Manuel Staropoli
Manuel Tomadin

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