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"Générations: Senaillé, Leclair - Sonates pour violon et clavecin"

Théotime Langlois de Swarte, violin; William Christie, harpsichord

rec: June 2020, Thiré, Le Bâtiment
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8905292 (© 2021) (68'25")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Leclair
Scores Senaillé

Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764): Sonata in A, op. 1,5 [4]; Sonata in F, op. 2,2 [5]; Sonata in e minor, op. 3,5 (gavotte) [6]; Jean-Baptiste SENAILLÉ (1687-1730): Sonata in c minor, op. 1,5 [1]; Sonata in g minor, op. 1,6 [1]; Sonata in D, op. 3,10 [2]; Sonata in e minor, op. 4,5 [3]

Sources: Jean-Baptiste Senaillé, [1] Premier livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue, 1710; [2] Sonates à violon seul avec la basse, Livre III, 1716; [3] Quatrième livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse, 1721; Jean-Marie Leclair, [4] Premier livre de sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue, 1723; [5] Second livre de sonates pour le violon et pour la flûte traversière avec la basse continue, 1728; [6] Sonates à deux violons sans basse, op. 3, 1730;

One of the features of French music in the early 18th century is the gradual evolution of the violin to the status of not only an instrument that was taken seriously in a solo role, but even to that of a tool for virtuosic pieces. This explains the publication of collections of sonatas for violin and basso continuo in the first quarter of the century. The emancipation of the violin was completed in the 1730s, when Leclair published his violin concertos.

Among the first exponents of the violin were Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Jean-Féry Rebel and Jean-Baptiste Senaillé. Whereas the former two are pretty well-known and their violin sonatas have been recorded more than once, Senaillé has remained largely unknown. The only previous recording I am aware of, is a selection of seven sonatas from his Opus 1, performed by Odile Edouard, Emmanuel Jacques and Freddy Eichelberger (K617, 2017).

Senaillé was born in Paris, where his father Jean worked as violinist in the 24 Violons du Roy; he probably was Senaillé's first teacher. He continued his studies with Giovanni Antonio Piani, a violinist from Naples, who in 1704 had settled in Paris. In 1710 and 1712 respectively he published his first two books with violin sonatas. Apparently he soon established himself as a violinist of repute, as Louis-Antoine Dornel called one of the sonatas in his collection of 1711 La Senaillé. In 1713 he succeeded his father as a player in the 24 Violons du Roy. He apparently spent some time in Italy, and according to his first biographer he took lessons from Tomaso Antonio Vitali in Modena, but there is no firm evidence of that. He published three further books of violin sonatas in1716, 1721 and 1727. From 1728 he regularly played at the Concert Spirituel and at that time he was considered one of the main violinists of France.

Which contacts he may have had in Italy is unclear, but there is no doubt about the Italian influence in his music. At his death, the Mercure galant wrote: "He had spent some time in Italy and had acquired enough of the Italian taste to blend it skilfully with the very attractive French melody. The progress that the violin has since made in France is due to him, for he incorporated quite technically difficult things into his music. Because his Airs de symphonie were so attractive and had a certain brilliance, everybody was charmed by them and wanted to learn how to play them - especially at a time when scarcely anyone had begun to familiarise themselves with any music that was at all out of the way."

The sonatas selected by Théotime Langlois de Swarte and William Christie give a good impression of his oeuvre. They are taken from the books 1, 3 and 4 and are all, as was common in Senaillé's sonatas, in four movements. His early sonatas are modelled after Arcangelo Corelli, but his later sonatas show the influence of Vivaldi. It is notable that most movements have Italian titles, but are often dances. The Sonata in g minor, op. 1,6 opens with a long and expressive preludio, with the tempo indication largo. It opens with four bars in which the harpsichord is on its own; then the violin enters. Halfway a similar episode turns up. The second movement is an allemanda (allegro), the third an adagio and the sonata closes with a gavotta (allegro). The Sonata in D, op. 3,10 opens and closes with movements with only tempo indications: adagio and allegro assai respectively. The two inner movements are dances: allemanda (allegro) and gavotta (affettuoso). The closing movement is especially brilliant, and Langlois de Swarte sees here a similarity with Vivaldi's concerto L'Estate from his Four Seasons. This is an example of Senaillé's virtuosity.

There is no reason to rate Senaillé's sonatas not as high as those by Jean-Marie Leclair, which are far better known. Bringing them together on this disc was a splendid idea. In Leclair's oeuvre one also observes the mixture of French and Italian elements. The Sonata in F, op. 2,2 includes a short adagio, which has the character of a recitative. At the same time, Leclair emphasized that a performer should avoid exaggeration. "All those who wish to succeed in playing these works according to the taste of the author must strive to find the character of each piece, as well as the right tempo and tone colour that suit the different pieces. An important point, which cannot be overemphasized, is to avoid the jumble of notes that are added to the melodic and expressive passages but which serve only to desfigure them." In that respect the two composers are not far apart. As William Christie points out in the interview in the booklet: "[If] there is a French trait in their music, it is perhaps in its elegance, in its chiselled melody, and always in its allusions to dance. This great rhythmic vigour, so characteristic of the French style, effectively removes us some distance from the sonatas of Corelli and other Italians."

This disc is a convincing case for Senaillé and the continuity between the two composers. Théotime Langlois de Swarte is a young virtuoso, who in recent years has made quite a name for himself in early music. I am sure we will hear a lot more from him in the future, as his recent recordings attest to his technical skills, but also his fine musicality and his good stylistic insights. The collaboration with William Christie, a man of a different generation (as expressed in the title, which refers to both the artists and the composers), is a very successful one. I like Christie's creativity in the realisation of the basso continuo. Together they have produced a real ear opener. The early stages of violin music in France are not as well-known as they deserve to be. I hope more of the repertoire from Senaillé's time will be explored.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Théotime Langlois de Swarte

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