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Michel de LA BARRE (1675 - 1745): "Suites & Sonates"

Ensemble Tic-Toc-Choc

rec: May & June 2017, Saint-Lambert (F), Église Saint-Lambert des Bois
Incises - INC004 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.43'40")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

IIIème Sonate in e minor [3]; Ière Suite in c minor [1]; Ière Suite in g minor [3]; IIème Suite in c minor [4]; IIème Suite in G [2]; IIIème Suite in b minor [3]; Vème Suite in d minor [2]; IXème Suite in G (Sonate 'L'inconnu') [4]

Sources: [1] Premier Livre de trio, pour les violons, flustes et hautbois, 1694; [2] Premier livre de pièces pour la flûte traversière, avec la basse continue, 1702; [3] Troisième livre des trio pour les violons, flûtes, et hautbois, mêlez de sonates pour la flûte traversière, 1707/R; [4] Deuxième livre de pièces pour la flûte traversière, avec la basse continuë, 1710/R

Jean-Pierre Nicolas, recorder; Valérie Balssa, transverse flute; Emmanuel Balssa, viola da gamba; Miguel Henry, theorbo, guitar; Michèle Dévérité, harpsichord

The transverse flute was one of the most popular instruments in France in the first half of the 18th century. Many composers wrote music for it, mostly in ensemble with other instruments. As the flute was also played by many amateurs it was quite profitable to produce music for them to play in domestic surroundings. One of the most prolific composers in this department was Michel de La Barre, himself a virtuosic player of the flute. "Thus your enchanting flute, LA BARRE, inspires Tenderness; all is inflamed by its Vanquishing Sounds", Antoine Houdar de La Motte, a contemporary poet and author of librettos, wrote.

Little is known about the early stages of La Barre's career. We don't know exactly when he was born; it is assumed it was around 1675. We also don't know who his teacher was. It may have been René Pignon Descoteaux, a flautist at the court of Louis XIV. He lived in the same district of Paris where La Barre was born. It was especially the gambist Marin Marais who was an inspiration to La Barre. In 1702 he published the first collection with solo pieces for flute in France. In his preface he states: "I have endeavoured to include in these Pieces some of the beauties, and difficulties, of which this instrument is capable, in order to encourage those who wish to perform them to study sufficiently to be able to do so. And in order to bring this Instrument as close as possible to perfection, I felt that, for the glory of the Flute and my own, I should follow the example of Monsieur Marais who has taken such trouble and care for the perfection of the Viol, and has succeeded so well". From this one may conclude that this collection wasn't just composed for entertainment, but also had an educational purpose. This was an essental element of the Enlightenment which emerged in the early 18th century and produced many treatises.

La Barre also made some forays into the world of the music theatre. He composed two works for the stage, the ballet opera Le triomphe des arts and La Vénitienne, a comédie-ballet. Both were to a libretto by the above-mentioned Houdar de La Motte. They didn't enjoy a positive reception, and La Barre abandoned his efforts in this department. There was one other genre of vocal music to which he contributed: he composed a number of airs, either airs sérieux or airs à boire.

However, his main contribution to music history is his music for the transverse flute. In 1694 he published his first collection of music, a set of trio sonatas for two flutes, two oboes or two violins. Such alternative scorings were very common at a time that chamber music was mostly intended for amateurs. In order to increase sales, it was necessary to offer music which could be played on the most common instruments of the time. The same scoring is mentioned at the title page of the second collection of trio sonatas, which was printed in 1700, and the third, which is only known from a reprint of 1707. La Barre also published two collections of pieces for transverse flute and basso continuo; the first dates from 1702, the second is known from a reprint of 1710. In 1709 La Barre published a suite for two transverse flutes without accompaniment. This was followed by eleven further sets of mostly two suites for this scoring, which apparently was very popular among amateurs, and was ideally suited for domestic music making.

The two discs reviewed here include a cross section of the trio sonatas and solo suites. The latter are played on the transverse flute, which is joined by the recorder in the pieces for two treble instruments. The latter line-up is one of the issues discussed in the booklet. It is mentioned that mixing the two instruments is not that easy. "Some might think that one of these instruments could only exist to the detriment of the other, and vice versa. It is true that the differences in the technique of producing sound result in differences of interpretation and determine musical expression; having to decide could deter many from using both. Let it be said that there's nothing simpler than two equal instruments playing together: the same language, the same qualities or weaknesses, the same difficulties of playing in tune, of articulation, the same way of modelling the sound and projecting it." Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes, observes that some of the tonalities, especially those which include many sharps, are awkward for the recorder, whereas tonalities with flats seem to suit the recorder more than the transverse flute. Even so, the two instruments were played side by side during much of the early 18th century. Paintings and drawings show the two instruments being played by members of the Chambre du Roi. Compositions by contemporaries confirm that the two instruments were played together. Another exponent of the transverse flute, Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, mentions the recorder specifically on the title pages of his trios as one of the possible instruments.

Although most pieces have the form of a suite, La Barre also uses the term sonata which shows that he was open to Italian influences. However, his music is predominatingly French in nature. One of the suites from the second book of solo pieces includes a sonata of four movements; three have no titles, but the last is - in typical French fashion - a chaconne. The second suite from the first book reflects the habit of composing character pieces, which manifests itself so prominently in the harpsichord music of La Barre's contemporaries, such as François Couperin. The suite comprises eight pieces: a prelude is followed by five dances and two rondeaus, all with an additional title, such as la signora, la cadette and l'écossaise. The same is the case with the fifth suite from the first book. The second suite from the second book is a special case, as here the performers have taken the freedom to include pieces from other suites. It opens with a prelude from the fourth suite of the first book, performed here as a harpsichord solo. It also includes a sarabande and a rondeau from the first suite of the second book.

The trios are taken from the first and the third book. The third sonata from the third book - the second piece on the first disc - comprises four movements: a prelude, a rondeau and two fugues. The third suite from the same book once again includes a piece taken from elsewhere: the fourth movement is the Plainte from the second suite of the second book - the only piece from this book included here. The suite ends with a passacaille. Another Plainte is part of the first suite from the first book, which ends with another passacaille. In the trio department we have another special case: the first suite from the third book includes a movement called petit rien, which is a pattern of notes repeated a couple of times. It is performed here several times - numbered 1 to 5 - at several moments during the suite. The prelude and sarabande are followed by Petit rien 1 and 2, after which we hear a rigaudon. Petit rien 3 and 4 follow, and after a gavotte and a menuet, the suite closes with Petit rien 5. All of these are played with different combinations of instruments, the last being a harpsichord solo.

La Barre is not an unknown quantity, but only a few discs with his music are available. This set of two discs is a major addition to the catalogue and an impressive testimony of his art and his historical importance. It is hard to imagine better performances than we get here from the Ensemble Tic-Toc-Choc (called after a harpsichord piece by François Couperin). Valérie Balssa delivers subtle performances on her transverse flute, but is also able to play with panache in the more extroverted pieces. Jean-Pierre Nicolas is a perfect match on the recorder, exploring the limited dynamic possibilities to the full. There are good impulses from the basso continuo group. This is a highly entertaining set of sonatas and suites, and testifies to the ideal of the time, that domestic music making should be an elegant conversation.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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