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Louis Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705 - 1770): Amusement & Douze Caprices Op. 18

[I] "Douze Caprices, Op. 18 pour le violon seul"
Gilles Colliard, violin
rec: Sept 9 - 11, 2001, Olmos de Ojeda (Palencia, ES), Santa Eufemia de Cozollos
EMEC Records - E-048 (64'08")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Capriccio I - XII

[II] "Amusement Op. 18"
Gilles Colliard, violin
rec: August 10 - 12, 2002, Olmos de Ojeda (Palencia, ES), Santa Eufemia de Cozollos
EMEC Records - E-054 (78'04")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

La Furstemberg (I); Andantino (II); Altro (III); Allegro (IV); Gratioso (V); Minueto (VI); Tamborino (VII); Altro (VIII); Altro (XII); Allegretto (XIII); Aria (XIV); Allegro (XVII); Allegro (XVIII); Gratioso (XIX); Minueto (XX); Allegro (XXI); Altro (XXII); Chasse (XXIII); Minueto (XXIV); Altro (XXV); Minueto (XXVI); Altro (XXVII); Minuetto (XXVIII); Gratioso (XXX); Altro (XXXI); Minueto (XXXII); Andantino (XXXIII); Minueto (XXXIV); Altro (XXXV); Andantino (XXXVI)


One of the features of European music of the 17th century was the antagonism between the French and the Italian styles. Jean-Baptiste Lully was appointed to create a French alternative to Italian opera which conquered most of Europe. However, the antagonism did not confine itself to opera. There was also a strong difference in the field of instrumental music. In Italy the emergence of a new style around 1600 resulted in a large repertoire of technically demanding music for single instruments, and especially the violin. In contrast, in France the latter instrument was only used in the orchestra and for dance music. It was towards the end of the century that composers started to write music for violin that required an extended playing technique. Among them were François Couperin and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre.

After 1700, when the French gradually opened up to the Italian style, the violin elevated to a status that was comparable to that of the viola da gamba, which for about a century had been one of the symbols of everything that was French in music. Among the first composers who wrote virtuosic music for the violin were Jean-Marie Leclair and Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville. The composer who is the subject of the two discs under review here, was of the second generation.

It is not known where Louis Gabriel Guillemain was born. He first studied the violin in Paris, and then went to Turin to become the pupil of Giovanni Battista Somis, who also had been the teacher of Leclair. At the age of 24, Guillemain started to work in the opera orchestra of Lyon. Between 1725 and 1738 he was the first violinist of the Académie de Musique in Dijon. He found a patron in Monsieur Chartraire de Bourbonne, who gave him the opportunity to travel to Italy again to broaden his musical horizon. In 1734 he published his first collection of sonatas, for violin and basso continuo, which he dedicated to his patron. Shortly thereafter he went to Paris, where he entered the service of the court of Louis XV, in a modest function. After some time he rose to the status of one of the best-paid musicians at the court. That did not prevent his getting into financial difficulties. In 1770 he died under unclear circumstances. It is generally assumed that the financial worries were too much for him and that he committed suicide.

Whereas Leclair and Guignon made a name for themselves both as composers and as performers, Guillemain seems to have suffered from stage fright, and did not often perform in public, although performances as a soloist in some of his own concertos at the Concert Spirituel are documented. However, his reputation was largely based on his compositions. His oeuvre includes eighteen collections of instrumental music, printed between 1734 and 1762, and a ballet-pantomime, first performed in Paris in 1748. In addition, some pieces are included in anthologies.

The two discs which are the subject of this review are devoted to the last collection of music that Guillemain published, under the title of Amusement pour le violon seul composé de plusieurs airs variés de differens auteurs (...) avec douze Caprices du même Auteur (1762). The title indicates that the collection consists of two different kind of pieces. The first disc is devoted to the first part of the set, which includes airs with variations. The first track offers the first piece, the last seems to contain the last piece. That would mean that this section comprises 36 pieces, but as the disc has thirty tracks, we have to conclude that not all pieces have been recorded. Some of them are very short: a few take less than one minute. Others, including the first and the last, are much longer. La Furstemberg was a popular tune; Michel Corrette used it for one of his Concertos comiques. No. XXIII is called La Chasse, and includes imitations of hunting horns. No. VII is entitled Tamborino, Italian for tambourine, a single-headed frame drum. Pieces with the title of tambourin were often included in instrumental works and in operas, and the character of the instrument is depicted through staccato playing. One could possibly say that this part of the collection is the more 'popular' one. However, these pieces are certainly not easy to play. There is quite a lot of multiple stopping and in No. 20, with the title Minueto, Guillemain explores the highest positions of the violin.

The pièces de résistance of this set of discs are the twelve Caprices. These are undoubtedly the kind of pieces Guillemain liked to play himself. They give us a good idea of the composer's virtuosity. The very concise liner-notes don't mention the name of Pietro Antonio Locatelli, who also composed Capricci to be included in his concertos for violin solo. It is not very likely that Guillemain did not know them; it is telling that the titles of the individual pieces are in Italian: Capriccio. There is a strong similarity between the capriccios by Locatelli and Guillemain. Each Capriccio includes a cadenza, which the interpreter should take as an opportunity to improvise on the theme the composer proposed. Gilles Colliard here includes his own cadenzas, which I assume were prepared before the recording. As is the case with Locatelli's Capricci, not every Capriccio is musically interesting. However, they offer us a unique insight into the state of violin technique in the mid-18th century in France.

Such pieces can only survive the paper on which they are printed if they are given excellent performances. And that is the case here. I am quite impressed by what Colliard brings to the table in his performances. That goes for the Capricci as well as for the airs with variations. He makes a clear difference between the two genres. Especially the airs are examples of fine music making, beyond mere technical fireworks. These pieces are good music in their own right, and that comes off well here. Colliard's cadenzas perfectly fit in with Guillemain's Capricci, technically and in character.

It is a shame that the liner-notes - which are identical in both booklets - are so sparing. Guillemain is not very well-known and this collection has - as far as I know - never been recorded before. That requires some analysis. Colliard has written some personal notes in the booklet, but these have not been translated into English. I can't see any indication that these discs have been reissued recently. According to Prestomusic they were released in 2012. Therefore I wonder why they have been sent for review about ten years later. It is also a bit of a mystery why the two recordings were released separately. A set of two discs would have been preferable. That may also have given the opportunity to record the Amusements complete.

Setting these issues apart, every lover of the baroque violin can only be happy with these two discs of music by a composer who was undoubtedly just as gifted as his better-known contemporaries Leclair or Tartini.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Gilles Colliard

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