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Michel DE LA BARRE (1675 - 1745): "Music for Louis XV - Ten Suites for two flutes"

John Solum, Richard Wyton, transverse flute

rec: August 3 & 8, 2006, Bedford, N.Y., St Matthew's Church (parish hall)
MSR Classics - MSR 1191 (© 2007) (66'23")

1er Sonate in B flat [2]; 2e Sonate in G [2]; 10e Suite in d minor [1]; 11e Suite in G [1]; 16e [Suite] in F [3]; 17e [Suite] in C [3]; 18e Suite in g minor [4]; 19e Suite in B flat [4]; 20e Suite in b minor [5]; 21e Suite in D [5]

(Sources: [1] 7e Livre, 1721; [2] 9e Livre, 1722; [3] 10e Livre, 1722; [4] 11e Livre, 1724; [5] 12e Livre, 1725)

Michel de La Barre is one of the lesser-known composers who was connected to the royal court in Paris in the first decades of the 18th century. Lesser-known to us, I mean, because in his time he was a celebrated performer and composer of music, mainly for the transverse flute. He was probably born in 1675 and published his first collection of music in 1694, a set of six suites for two melody instruments and bc. In 1702 this was followed by a set of suites for transverse flute and bc. This set is particularly interesting in that La Barre explores the possibilities of the one-keyed conical flute.

In the programme notes John Solum explains this. "About the time of La Barre's birth, the transverse flute underwent two important changes. Before then, the flute had a cylindrical bore and had no keys (levers) to close holes beyond the reach of the fingers. However, around 1670 flute-makers in France as well in the Netherlands added a key, thus enabling the flute for the first time to play every note of the chromatic scale. At the same time the interior bore was redesigned from a cylindrical shape to conical (tapering from the head to the foot of the flute), thus increasing tonal power and improving intonation. This flute we now call the Baroque flute".

La Barre had played in Louis XIV's Académie Royale de Musique and later became a member of the Chambre du Roy. The main part of his output consists of duets for two transverse flutes. In total he composed 19 of those duets, and the last 10 he published are recorded here. They all consist of four movements, both free forms like prélude and rondeau and dances like allemande and gigue. Considering the fashion of the time it is surprising that only one of the suites on this disc contains a character piece: La Badine (11e Suite in G).

As much as I like the music I am a little disappointed by this recording. First of all, I think it wasn't very wise to record only music for two flutes. As a result I'm afraid only flute aficionados are going to buy this disc. It had been much more attractive for a wide audience if these pieces had been alternated by compositions for one or two flutes with basso continuo. Second, I find the interpretation too uniform. The first item on this disc contains three movements with the characterisation 'légèrement', which means 'light' or 'light-hearted', but I feel the playing is too robust here. In fact too many movements sound more or less the same and after a while it starts to get a little tiresome, especially as the pauses between the suites are rather short. Listeners are well advised to consume this disc in bits and pieces and not listen to the whole disc at a stretch.

La Barre was known for his expressive playing, and one may expect this to be reflected by his own compositions as well. But in this performance there is just too little sensitivity, reflected in a lack of variety in articulation and dynamics. Even a movement like the sarabande of the 11e Suite there isn't played piano.

The microphones have been very close to the players: the technique of the players blowing air into their flutes is clearly audible. It isn't very pleasant to listen to for more than one hour.

In short: this is a kind of missed opportunity to show the qualities of La Barre's duets for two flutes, because of bad programming and a lack of sensitivity in the interpretation.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

John Solum

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