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Louis-Antoine DORNEL (1680? - 1765?): Chamber Music

[A] Six Suittes en Trio, 1709
Musica Barocca

rec: May 12 - 14, 2001, Forde Abbey (Dorset, UK)
Naxos - 8.570826 (© 2008) (69'06")

[B] "La Triomphante - Chamber Music for Recorders, Flute and Continuo"
Passacaglia; Dan Laurin, recorder; Eligio Quinteiro, theorbo

rec: May 29 - 31,2006, Toddington (Gloucestershire, UK)
Naxos - 8.570986 (© 2008) (73'43")

[A] Suite in a minor, op. 1,1 [1]; Suite in A, op. 1,2 [1]; Suite in e minor, op. 1,3 [1]; Suite in D, op. 1,4 [1]; Suite in G, op. 1,5 [1]; Suite in e minor, op. 1,6 [1]; [B] Sonate en quatuor [1]; Sonate IV in D 'La Forcroy' [2]; Sonate II in D, op. 3,2 'La Triomphante' [3]; Sonate III in b minor, op. 3,3 [3]; Sonate VII 'pour trois dessus' in d minor, op. 3,7 [3]; 3e Suite in e minor [2]; 5e Suite in C [4]

(Sources: [1] Livre de simphonies contenant 6 suittes en trio ... avec 1 sonate en quatuor, op. 1, 1709; [2] Sonates, op. 2, 1711; [3] Sonates en trio, op. 3, 1713; [4] Pièces de clavecin, 1731)

[A] Lisette da Silva, María Martínez, voice flute; Nicholas Stringfellow, viola da gamba; Mauricio Buraglia, theorbo; Juan Estévez, harpsichord;
[B] Annabel Knight, recorder, transverse flute; Louise Bradbury, recorder; Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba, Robin Bigwood, harpsichord, organ

In a recent interview the flautist Jed Wentz, director of the ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, said that of all baroque music he loves French music most, but unfortunately it doesn't sell very well. Some record companies and ensembles seem to think differently: over the last year or so quite a number of discs with instrumental music of the French baroque have crossed my path. If there wouldn't be a market for this kind of repertoire, it wouldn't be so frequently recorded. I also note with satisfaction that some musicians and ensembles avoid the standard repertoire, like Marais and François Couperin, and turn their attention to the lesser known composers of the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century. Louis-Antoine Dornel is certainly no unknown quantity in our time, but he definitely belongs to the lesser-known echelon of French composers of the baroque era.

Dornel was educated as an organist and held several positions in this capacity in Paris. But very little else is known about his life and career. Even the exact dates of his birth and death are unsure as the data on these two discs show. Musica Barocca's disc says: 1680-1765, Passacaglia's disc gives: c1680-c1757. Unfortunately it is not just his life we don't know very much about. Our knowledge of his oeuvre is also limited. It is known that he wrote several motets which were greatly appreciated and were also performed at the Concert Spirituel, but as all these works have been lost we know nothing about their features.

What has been left is a handful of organ pieces, suites for the harpsichord, some collections of chamber music, two chamber cantatas, a divertissement and some airs. The suites recorded by Musica Barocca were his first collection which was published in 1709. Its title is Livre de simphonies, a simphonie being the general term for a piece of music. The six suites are written for two treble instruments and bc.

A characteristic feature of Dornel's music, also apparent in these suites, is his sense for polyphony. The suggestion that this is due to his education as an organist seems very plausible. The suites regularly move away from the traditional pattern of allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue - as so often is the case in French suites of the late baroque. Three of the suites open with a (slow) prélude, the other three with an overture in two sections (slow - fast). The courante is completely absent, instead we find movements like menuet, fantaisie, rondeau or ritournelle. Of course, a collection like this can't do without a chaconne (three) or a passacaille (one). And very few composers failed to write a 'plainte', as we find here in the Suite in G, op. 1,5.

The chamber music of Dornel gives evidence of the change in the musical climate in the early 18th century. The reign of Louis XIV was coming to its end, and the stranglehold of the French taste was waning. More and more composers gave in to the growing influence of the Italian style. Some of them went very far in embracing it, like Jean-Marie Leclair, whose violin sonatas reflect the Italian preference for virtuosity. But most followed the path of François Couperin, trying to mix the French and the Italian taste. Louis-Antoine Dornel also seems to have been an advocate of what was called the goût réuni.

In 1713 Dornel published his opus 3, Sonates en trio, which are among the first trio sonatas printed in France. But not everything is what it seems: Dornel sill preferred the traditional French dance movements. The Sonate II in D, op. 3,2 contains four of them: allemande, sarabande, gavotte and gigue. But there is some Italian influence in these trio sonatas, in particular in the imitation between the parts, which is inspired by the trio sonatas of Corelli.

The Italian influence is already discernible in Dornel's opus 1. That is in particular the case in the Sonate en quatuor which was left out of Musica Barocca's recording because of a lack of space, but is included in the programme which has been recorded by Passacaglia. It is this work the disc starts with, and a fine start it is, because it is a very expressive piece. In particular the first movement contains strong contrasts. The three treble parts are played here on three recorders, and the players realise dynamic shades as much as recorders allow. Their performance, as engaging as it is, doesn't change my reservation in regard to the use of recorders in Dornel's chamber music, though. In the title of his opus 1 flutes, violins and oboes are mentioned, but that in itself is no argument against playing these suites on recorders, or, as in Musica Barocca's recording, voice flutes (a type of recorder with d’ as its lowest note, a tone and a half lower than its relative, the treble recorder in F). But after 1700 the recorder was clearly in decline and overshadowed by the transverse flute. Therefore the choice of voice flutes is not very logical, in particular as the suites have to be transposed - a fact the programme notes fail to mention.

Passacaglia's disc contains two sonatas from the opus 2, which consists of six sonatas for violin and six suites for transverse flute. In these pieces Dornel follows the typical French tradition of writing character pieces. The Sonate IV in D is called 'La Forcroy', a reference to the composer Forqueray. The 3e Suite in e minor contains several character pieces, like 'L'angélique', 'Le Caron' and 'La Chauvigny'. Such pieces are also in the 5e Suite in C from the Pièces de clavecin which were published in 1731.
Returning to opus 3, the Sonate VII in d minor is written for three treble instruments without basso continuo. In the first movement two of the instruments are playing unisono. In the other movements they split and play their own lines.

As far as the performances of these two ensembles are concerned, they don't quite act at the same level. Apart from Musica Barocca's choice of voice flutes, their sound needs a bit of time to get used to, at least on this disc: there are some sharp edges in their sound, especially when the full dynamic range is exploited. I also had liked the interpretation being a bit more adventurous and imaginative, in particular in regard to ornamentation. Also the basso continuo section could have shown more presence. The fact that the two treble parts are treated on equal terms isn't always reflected by the recording: in particular in the Suite in e minor, op. 1,3 which opens the programme, the first voice flute is overshadowing the second.

I am more satisfied with the recording by Passacaglia. The playing is generally excellent and I think the players are fully exploring the character of the pieces they have chosen. In comparison to Musica Barocca the members of Passacaglia show a bit more imagination and zest. I already mentioned the splendid performance of the Sonate en quatuor; also the chaconne which closes the Sonate IV in D 'La Forcroy' is given a very exciting performance. In this and the rest of the programme the players show a very good sense of rhythm. The only point of criticism is probably that Robin Bigwood's articulation in the 5e Suite in C could have been a little sharper. The contributions of Reiko Ichise should be specifically mentioned, in particular her obbligato part in the fourth movement of the already mentioned sonata nicknamed 'La Forcroy'.

Although Dornel isn't one of the best-known composers of the French baroque, he isn't that badly represented on disc. The Dutch flautist Wilbert Hazelzet devoted a whole disc to his chamber music (Glossa) and Hugo Reyne gave a good overview of his oeuvre with his ensemble La Simphonie de Marais (Tempéraments). But these two discs from Naxos, which nicely complement each other, are most welcome additions to the catalogue. They show that Dornel's music is substantial and well worth exploring. Despite my reservations in regard to the performances of Musica Barocca I like to recommend both discs to anyone interested in French baroque repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Musica Barocca

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