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Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1689 - 1755): "Transition baroque"

Jean-Louis Charbonnier, viola da gambaac, Paul Rousseau, viola da gambaa [bc]; Mauricio Buraglia, theorboa; Pierre Trocellier, harpsichorda
Claire Giardelli, Claire Gratton [bc], cellob; Marie Hervé, bassoonb; Laure Vovard, harpsichordb

rec: August 26 - Sept 2, 2013, Pontlevoy, Abbaye (chapel)
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0301271-14 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (66'44"/ 62'38")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list
Scores op. 31

Diverses pièces de viole avec la basse chifrée, op. 31 (1730)a ([Suite in] C, sol, ut; [Suite in] D, la, ré; [Suite in] E, si, mi; [Suite in] G, ré, sol; [Suite in] A, mi, la)
Six sonates dont la dernière est en trio pour les violoncelles, bassons ou violes avec la basse, op. 50, 1734b (Sonata I in e minor; Sonata II in G; Sonata III in D; Sonata IV in d minor; Sonata V in c minor; Sonata VI en trio in Dc)

This set brings together two collections of music which have the opus numbers 31 and 50 respectively. However, there are just four years between these publications which attests to the productivity of the composer, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. This was something which was held against him. Jean-Benjamin de La Borde, writer on music, stated: "Boismortier appeared at a time when people were only fond of simple and exceedingly easy music. This skilful musician exploited the fashion of the day rather too much and wrote countless songs and duets for the masses, to be played on flutes, violins, oboes, musette de cour, the hurdy-gurdy, and so on." The composer was not impressed by the criticism. His simple answer was: "I'm earning a living".

He was probably the first non-aristocratic professional composer who was not in the service of a court, a town or a church. He didn't need to fullfill the wishes of an employer, and the size and character of his output attests to the fact that he had skilled amateurs in mind. In this respect he is comparable with his German colleague Telemann. Boismortier composed for almost any instrument in vogue in his time. Many of his collections are playable on various instruments which is an indication that they are not that idiomatically written. Even so, some pieces point in the direction of a specific instrument. The op. 31 is even expressis verbis written for the viola da gamba: Diverses pièces de viole avec la basse chifrée. It is divided into five suites according to key, although the word suite is not used: only the keys are indicated. These 'suites' are of various texture. There are just three pieces in C, sol, ut, but no fewer than ten in D, la, ré. The suites all open with a prélude which is followed by a series of dances or character pieces. Examples of the latter category are pieces such as La Majestueux, La Moderne and Le Brut (Suite in D, la, ré). A number of pieces is written in rondeau form which was very popular in France at the time.

This is fine music to listen to, although not quite comparable to the best music by the famous masters of the viola da gamba, such as Marais and Forqueray. One of the nicest pieces is the prélude which opens the Pièces en A, mi, la. It is also due to Jean-Louis Charbonnier's playing that I am a little hesitant in my appreciation. He plays well enough, but sometimes a bit brusque and abrasive. Sometimes I missed elegance and refinement.

I have no reservations in regard to the second leg of this production, the six sonatas for cello and basso continuo, with the last sonata being a trio, printed in 1734 as the op. 50. Strictly speaking this collection is not specifically intended for the cello. The title page mentions bassoon and even viola da gamba as alternatives. But this is an example of music whose character strongly points in the direction of the cello. It was printed in a time of competition between the viol and the cello and their respective supporters. The defenders of the viola da gamba considered it a symbol of everything that was French, and which needed to be defended against the attack of the cello. The latter was a typical product of the Italian style which they rejected as vulgar. However, they fought for a lost cause, because most French composers felt attracted to the Italian style. The famous violinist Jean-Marie Leclair openly embraced it, although he used with French restraint. Vivaldi's concertos were even performed in the Concert Spirituel in Paris.

Boismortier's colleague Michel Corrette declared in a treatise of 1741 that "those who are jealous of the cello will always fail in their attempts to halt the progress it achieves every day. Moreover, it wins over all ears sensitive to harmony." He then explained the virtues of the cello: "[This] sonorous instruments's accompaniment (...) articulates its sounds so well, and enunciates clearly and distinctly". These features clearly come to the fore in the sonatas op. 50 which explains that they are quite different from the suites in the op. 31. That said, the sonatas are a mixture of the Corellian sonata da camera and sonata da chiesa. Part of the former are movements in dance form, and in that respect they are not that different from the viola da gamba suites.

Boismortier's sonatas are not a declaration of war against the viola da gamba. Only four years before he had published his op. 31, and in the sonatas op. 50 he suggests a performance on the viol as an alternative. That makes him a supporter of the ideal of the goûts réünis, the mixture of French and Italian influences.

Claire Giardelli delivers outstanding performances which underline the rhythmic pulse. The cello's qualities in regard to articulation are impressively demonstrated here, and I noted with satisfaction the clear distinction between good and bad notes. These are truly speechlike performances. The use of a bassoon in some of the sonatas is a nice gesture and brings some variety in the sound of the ensemble. The closing trio is given an engaging performance.

Boismortier may have been criticised for the size of his oeuvre, there is no reason to ignore it. This production offers much to enjoy, thanks to the composer and the performers.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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