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Robert DE VISÉE (c1660 - c1732): Suites for treble instrument and bass, 1716

[I] "Musique pour la chambre du Roi"
ornamente 99
Dir: Karsten Erik Ose

rec: Sept 24 - 27, 2008, Baden-Baden, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio
Christophorus - CHR 77306 (© 2009) (68'10")

[II] "Suites pour Théorbe"
Amélie Michel, transverse flutea; Amandine Beyer, violinb; Marianne Muller, viola da gambac; Pascal Monteilhet, theorbod

rec: June 7 - 8, 2004 & April 19 - 20, 2005, Paris, Église de Bon Secours
ZigZag Territoire - ZZT051101 (© 2005) (67'30")

[I] Prélude L'erreur fatal; Suite in c minor; Suite in d minor; Suite in e minor; Suite in E flat; Suite in G; Suite in a minor; Suite in a minor
[II] Suite in d minord; Suite in Fd; Suite in f minorcd Suite in Gbd; Suite in g minord; Suite in a minorad

[I] Karsten Erik Ose, recorder; Stefan Temmingh, bass recorder; Roswitha Bruggaier, viola da gamba; André Henrich, lute, theorbo, guitar; Diez Eichler, harpsichord

Robert de Visée was by far the most celebrated theorbo player in France in the last decades of the 17th century. It is mainly as a player of the guitar and as a composer of music for this instrument, though, that he is known. In this capacity he came at the royal court in the 1680's and often played for Louis XIV at his bedside as the king was a great lover of the guitar. When De Visée was active the theorbo was on its way out. It is no coincidence that two books with guitar pieces were printed in 1682 and 1686 respectively - the first of which was dedicated to the king - whereas his pieces for theorbo have only survived in manuscript.

De Visée was well aware of the changing tastes of his time and he moved away from the style of the luthenistes and tried to keep up with the fashion of the day. But that made his music less well playable on the theorbo, and it is probably for that reason that he arranged a number of theorbo suites for a melody instrument and bc. This way they could be played on either melody instrument, like the recorder, the transverse flute or the violin. It is this publication of 1716 which is the subject of this recording by ornamente 99. For this review I have added a disc which concentrates on the same collection, in which some of these suites are played as indicated in the edition of 1716, but which also includes some suites played on the theorbo as notated in the manuscript which was the basis of De Visée's own arrangement.

There seems to be some disagreement between Karsten Erik Ose and Pascal Monteilhet, writing the programme notes for their own recording, as to whether De Visée himself was responsible for the edition of 1716. Ose writes that "the composer himself did not renounce such 'popular' arrangements, though perhaps this was not entirely within his control", whereas Monteilhet simply writes that "Visée proposes suites for theorbo transcribed for two voices" and "adds chords when necessary". Whatever may be the truth, this collection certainly reflects common practice, as many music was transcribed to serve the needs of players. Even the choice of instruments was left to the performers depending on what was available to them. In this respect I think ornamente 99's recording is a little one-sided in that the treble line of all suites is played on the recorder, even though this instrument can be heard at several pitches (treble, alto, tenor, voice flute and fourth flute). It is also appropriate to point out that at the time De Visée's collection was published the recorder had lost much ground and was overshadowed by the transverse flute.

There are some differences between the manuscript and the edition of 1716. For instance, in the manuscript all suites begin with a prélude which is left out in the instrumental arrangement. In Monteilhet's recording they have been added on the basis of the manuscript in two cases. Monteilhet also changed some of the notations in the manuscript as he believes the handwriting is probably not De Visée's own.

A direct comparison between these two recordings doesn't make much sense. Only one suite is played on both discs, and even there the difference in scoring makes a comparison not very useful. Not only the scoring of the treble line is different, but so is the scoring of the basso continuo. Whereas ornamente 99 uses a harpsichord, mostly supported by bass viol and a plucked instrument - in some movements also with a bass recorder - Monteilhet plays the basso continuo on his own, "contrary to Visée's recommendations", as he admits.

Musically speaking both recordings express the quality of De Visée's music, and as they are very different in scoring and choice of suites they are complementary rather than competitive. I would recommend them both, although - if I have to make a choice - I probably would slightly prefer Monteilhet.

Lastly I would like to refer to the remarks about performance practice by Pascal Monteilhet. On the basis of treatises of De Visée's time he lists some points "which over the years will form a musician's good taste". Among them is that one should not take tempo to extremes nor add too many ornaments. This seems to be in direct opposition to the results of a research project which was the basis of the recording by Aux Pieds du Roy. Is this just a matter of interpretation of the sources or should we conclude that the various writers on performance practice of around 1700 indeed contradict each other?

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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