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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697 - 1764): "Elite de bon mots"

Augustin Lusson, violin; François Gallon, cello
The Beggar's Ensemble
Dir: Augustin Lusson

rec: June 11 - 15, 2021, Poitiers, TAP
Flora - FLO5321 (© 2022) (71'37")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jean-Baptiste BARRIÈRE (1707-1747): Sonata for cello and bc in C minor, op. 2,6 Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697 - 1764): Deuxième récréation de musique in g minor, op. 8 (chaconne); Première récréation de musique in D, op. 6 (ouverture); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in D minor, op. 7,1; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in D, op. 7,2; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in G minor, op. 10,6

Sources: Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Sonates pour le violoncelle avec la basse continue, Livre II, c1735;

Marie-Luise Werneburg, Mark Williams, discantus; Marnix De Cat, altus;

If there is any music that attests to the increase of the influence of the Italian style in France in the course of the first half of the 18th century, it may well be the violin concerto. The genre of the solo concerto was new to France, as it was one of the most prominent exponents of the Italian style. Moreover, the violin was not held in high esteem: until the late 17th century it was part of the opera orchestra and employed in dance music and some chamber music. Only a few violinists in France had the skills to play technically demanding music. Among the first composers who wrote such music for violin were Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Jean-Féry Rebel and Jean-Baptiste Senaillé. They composed and published sonatas for violin and basso continuo. It was only in 1734 that the first collection of violin concertos was printed: as set of six by Jacques Aubert (Op. 17). Three years later Jean-Marie Leclair published a set of six concertos as his Op. 7, followed in 1745 by another set of six as the Op. 10. These concertos are almost the only French specimens of the genre that are part of the standard repertoire of modern violinists.

In recent years a few complete recordings have been released. The Beggar's Ensemble selected three concertos, two from Op. 7 and one from Op. 10. Rather than confining themselves to the violin concertos, the performers structured the recording in the form of a public concert. The start and finish are movements from the two Récréations de musique, which are scored for two violins or transverse flutes and basso continuo. It is fitting that the first item is an overture, which has the characteristic form, as it starts with a section in slow tempo with dotted rhythms, followed by a section marked vivement. The programme ends with a chaconne, the kind of basso ostinato that was a fixed part of any French opera, mostly played towards the end of the last act, and also of many instrumental suites.

Leclair's concertos follow the Vivaldian model in that they comprise three movements in the usual order: fast - slow - fast. The exception is the Concerto No. 2 in D from the Op. 7, whose first movement opens with a section marked adagio. It is notable that the title page of the concertos Op. 7 does not refer to a solo violin. It says: Six Concerto a tré violini, alto, e basso, per Organo é Violoncello. This indicates that the soloist is a primus inter pares, and not the star he was going to be in concertos from later in the 18th century. Interesting is also the mention of an organ. Iakovos Pappas, in his liner-notes, comments this feature thus: "Some might have found worth raising the question of whether the accompaniment should be with the organ or the harpsichord. When you know the aesthetics of the French organ building in any way, the question merely cannot arise: the portable organs currently used had never existed in France, and the so-called cabinet organs, like Madame Adelaide's in Château de Versailles, are massive eight-stop instruments; so obviously the plain amateur did use harpsichords. Or else we would have to conclude that these concertos were only played when an organ was available. Quite simply Leclair uses a title consecrated by use in Italy."

It is known that Leclair's concertos were part of the repertoire performed at the Concert Spirituel. For many years those took place in the Tuileries Palace, which had an organ. However, it seems right that most performers avoid the use of an organ (Ensemble Violini Capricciosi - Brilliant Classics, 2020; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel - Glossa, 2018/2019/2022). Its omission here is not only the result of the interpretation of the reference to the organ quoted above, but also due to the general approach of the performers. We have here a performance which seems to have been modelled after performances in the salons at the time rather than larger venues, such as the Tuileries Palace. The line-up with one instrument per part attests to that. This is also the line-up in the recording by the Ensemble Violini Capricciosi, whereas in the recording of La Cetra Barockorchester the soloist Leila Schayegh is accompanied by six violins, two violas and two cellos. It is notable that in the bass section of The Beggar's Ensemble we find a cello, a viola da gamba, a violone and a contrebasse à 3 cordes. Plucked instruments, such as theorbo and guitar, are omitted.

This line-up results in a strong amount of intimacy, which is also the effect of the close miking. As a listener one has the impression of sitting very close to the performers. That alone sets this recording apart from most others. In Schayegh's recordings, for instance, there is quite some reverberation. Given that these concertos were performed at different occasions and venues, this is not so much a matter of 'good' vs 'better', let alone 'good' vs 'wrong'. They can coexist, and offer different perspectives.
To this one can add the way the ensemble performs these concertos. I have had the pleasure of attending two concerts of this ensemble, with very different repertoire, but I recognize the fearless and engaging style of playing. The leader and soloist, Augustin Lusson, is a brilliant player and a representative of a young generation of French performers, among which is also Théotime Langlois de Swarte. Lusson seems the more exuberant and extroverted of the two. I like his imaginative interpretation of the solo parts, and the ensemble as a whole is also outstanding in the tutti. It is indeed a dialogue between close friends, and as a listener one feels to be part of it. The cadenzas are excellent, and another feature is the dynamic shading, also on single notes. One of the highlights of this recording is the closing movement of the Concerto in D. The last concerto from the Op. 10 set is one of the most technically demanding. Here Lusson can demonstrate his impressive technique, without forgetting to make music.

Given the intimate setting of this recording, it is fitting that a sonata for cello and basso continuo is included. Jean-Baptiste Barrière was from Bordeaux and worked in Paris in 1730 as Musicien ordinaire de notre Académie Royale de Musique. In 1733 he was granted a privilege to publish sonatas and other instrumental works. In 1736 he went to Rome to study the cello but it seems very likely that he already composed for the cello before that. His first two books with six sonatas each were printed in Paris in 1733 and 1735 respectively; these were followed in 1739 and 1740 by the third and fourth book. These collections show an increase in technical complexity and the last two books attest to a growing influence of the Italian style. The Sonata in c minor from the Op. 2 is a fine specimen of Barrière's art. François Gallon delivers an excellent performance, which again includes some effective dynamic contrasts. It is notable that the basso continuo is allocated to other string bass instruments; the harpsichord is omitted here.

Leclair's violin concertos are available in several recordings - either complete or in selections - and I have especially enjoyed the recent recording by Leila Schayegh mentioned above. However, the present disc is a fine and enjoyable addition to the discography, which can easily holds its ground. It is another testimony of the quality of Leclair's concertos, and also of the qualities of The Beggar's Ensemble, of which I hope to hear much more in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

The Beggar's Ensemble

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