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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697 - 1764): Concertos & Sonatas

[I] "Six Sonates en trio oeuvre IV"
Ensemble RosaSolis
rec: Nov 22 - 25, 2012, Villefavard, La Ferme
Musica Ficta - MF8018 (© 2013) (71'32")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in d minor, op. 4,1; Sonata II in B flat, op. 4,2; Sonata III in d minor, op. 4,3; Sonata IV in F, op. 4,4; Sonata V in g minor, op. 4,5; Sonata VI in A, op. 4,6

Sonates en trio, op. 4, c1731-33

Guillaume Humbrecht, Marieke Bouche, violin; Nicolas Crnjanski, cello; Julie Blais, harpsichord

[II] Concertos & Trio sonata
Camerata Köln
rec: Feb 19 - 21, 2014, Baden-Baden, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875016222 (© 2014) (54'37")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score op. 2 & Parts op. 7

Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in C, op. 7,3abceg [2]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in D, op. 7,4bcdeg [2]; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor, op. 7,5bcdeg [2]; Sonata for transverse flute, viola da gamba and bc in D, op. 2,8af [1]

[1] Second livre de sonates pour le violon et pour la flute traversiere avec la basse continue, c1728; [2] Six Concerto á tre violini, alto, e basso, op. 7, 1737

Karl Kaiser, transverse flutea; Christine Buschb (solo*), Regine Schröderc, Lotta Suyantod, violin; Corina Golomoz, violae; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gambaf, cellog; Frank Coppieters, violone; Sabine Bauer, harpsichord

Jean-Marie Leclair was one of the main violinists in France in the second quarter of the 18th century. That was the time most of his collections of sonatas were printed. Leclair was educated as a dancer and a violinist, and for some time acted in both capacities. His contact with the Italian violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Somis, pupil of Arcangelo Corelli, was a key moment in his career. He decided to concentrate on playing the violin and writing for his own instrument. Leclair composed some music for the theatre - which is lost, except his opera Scylla et Glaucus - but otherwise his oeuvre comprises exclusively music for violin.

Between 1723 and 1743 he published four books with sonatas for violin and basso continuo which show an increasing amount of virtuosity. The later books reflect the development in his skills as a violinist and the influence of his teacher Somis and - more generally - the Italian style. These, and the two sets of violin concertos were probably written for his own use in the first place. Most of them seem too complicated for amateurs. The trio sonatas are different: such pieces were written for non-professional players and printed in large numbers across Europe. Leclair's trio sonatas op. 4 are less demanding than the solo sonatas.

They bear witness to the Italian influence in Leclair's compositional style. With the exception of Sonata No. 3 they are all in four movements and are modelled after the Corellian sonata da chiesa. The titles of the movements are all in Italian. Only some refer to the dance: the fourth movement of Sonata No. 3 is a sarabanda, Sonata No. 5 closes with a giga and Sonata No. 6 has a gavotta as its third movement. There are no character pieces as were common in French music of the time. Italian influence also comes to the fore in the harmonic language in some movements. The time these sonatas were published was also the time the galant idiom conquered Europe, but its features are largely absent in these sonatas. They are more complicated and include more counterpoint than was usual in galant repertoire. Also notable is the fact that the basso continuo often plays a quite independent role.

Although Leclair was clearly influenced by the Italian style his music reflects the ideal of many French composers of the time: the mixture of the Italian and the French idiom, generally called the goûts réunis. Traditionally the French had problems with what they considered extremisms in Italian music: it was overly virtuosic and excessively theatrical. In the preface to his op. 4 Leclair expresses his wish to moderate these features. He states that "[an] important point (...) is to avoid that confusion of notes that people add to vocal and expressive pieces, and that serve only to disfigure them." This has to be interpreted as a warning not to add too many ornaments to what he had written down. That was exactly one of the features of Italian music which many French music lovers disliked. Leclair's preface reflects his own style of playing which was described as pleasant and mellow in tone.

The members of the Ensemble RosaSolis have found the right approach to these sonatas. Their performances are not devoid of brilliance, and technically they leave nothing to be desired. However, the content of these sonatas is always in the centre: the artists avoid exaggerations in the ornamentation department, exactly as Leclair required, and the smoothness and elegance which was the feature of the composer's own playing comes certainly to the fore here. This disc makes for more than an hour of pleasant listening. These trio sonatas are excellent stuff, and the Ensemble RoSasolis manages to bring that across with verve.

The Camerata Köln presents a programme in which specimens of both categories in Leclair's oeuvre are represented: three concertos from his op. 7 and a trio sonata from the op. 2. It is likely that Leclair played the concertos himself, for instance in the Concert Spirituel, but they were also published which means that they will have been played by others as well. This means that it is impossible to say with how many performers they were played; we even don't know anything about Leclair's own performances. Camerata Köln opted for a performance with one instrument per part. That is certainly legitimate as we know that concerts in the Concert Spirituel also included chamber music. The larger scoring of Les Muffatti is equally valid.

In his liner-notes Karl Kaiser rightly argues that Leclair was able to blend the Italian influences into the French tradition of which he was a product. But in these performances the former seem to have received too much weight. I notice little of the French elegance and balance; the tone of the strings, and especially the solo violin is at times even aggressive. That effect is even intensified by the miking which is a little too close for comfort. In comparison the flute concerto comes off better. This is the only concerto from the set which is not for violin but for transverse flute or oboe. It is largely based on dances and that comes off well here.

This concerto attests to the fact that Leclair's oeuvre, although largely scored for violin(s), includes pieces for other instruments. In several collections of sonatas for violin we find some sonatas which can also be played on the transverse flute. That undoubtedly reflects the fast-growing popularity of this instrument in his time, especially among amateurs. The Second livre de sonates which dates from around 1728 includes six such sonatas. The Sonata VIII in D is special in that it includes a second melody part, to be played on the viola da gamba. This combination is interesting as this instrument was on the verge of becoming obsolete and overshadowed by the 'Italian' violin. It is another token of Leclair's blending of French and Italian influences. Italian is the texture: in its four movements - with Italian titles - it follows the model of the Corellian sonata da chiesa. It is given a fine performance by the members of Camerata Köln.

However, this and the flute concerto are the only really satisfying parts of this disc, and that is not enough to recommend it. The short playing time also doesn't speak for it. On balance this release is a little disappointing and not the first choice if one would like to add these works to one's collection. The recording by Les Muffatti mentioned above are a far better proposition.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

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