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Jean-Marie LECLAIR: Violin Sonatas Opus 1

[I] "Violin Sonatas, Book 1: Nos. 1-4
[II] "Violin Sonatas, Book 1: Nos. 5-8
[III] "Violin Sonatas, Book 1: Nos. 9-12

Adrian Butterfield, violin; Alison McGillivray, viola da gamba; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord

rec: Jan 3 - 5 & 8 - 10, 2008, London, St Mary's Church, Walthamstow
Naxos - 8.570888, 8.570889, 8.570890 (© 2009) (64'15"/ 55'14"/ 57'37)

[I] Sonata in a minor, op. 1,1; Sonata in C, op. 1,2; Sonata in B flat, op. 1,3; Sonata in D, op. 1,4
[II] Sonata in A, op. 1,5; Sonata in e minor, op. 1,6; Sonata in F, op. 1,7; Sonata in G, op. 1,8
[III] Sonata in A, op. 1,9; Sonata in D, op. 1,10; Sonata in B flat, op. 1,11; Sonata in b minor, op. 1,12

Jean-Marie Leclair was one of the great virtuosos of the violin in the history of music. He had a high reputation and travelled through Europe as a performer. He started his career in a time when the Italian style was fully established in France. He was one of the representatives of the ideal of the goûts réunis, the mixture of French and Italian elements. In his sonatas for violin and basso continuo the influence of in particular Arcangelo Corelli is indisputable.

Leclair composed four books of sonatas for violin and basso continuo. The third and fourth books are technically more demanding than the first two, which is the result of his studies in Italy. Adrian Butterfield, in his programme notes, regrets the "almost complete neglect of his first two books by violinists". But it isn't as bad as he suggests. In fact, Leclair is pretty well represented on disc. Sonatas from all four books have been recorded, and in my collection I have several discs with sonatas from the books 1 and 2, by François Fernandez, Jaap Schröder and Fabio Biondi. But it is true that - as far as I know - no complete recording of the first book existed. And Butterfield is also right when he states that these sonatas "contain such a marvellous synthesis of Italian lyricism and French elegance".

It is notable that Leclair's sonatas are idiomatic, meaning that they are specifically written for violin and explore the technical possibilities of the instrument. For two sonatas Leclair suggests the transverse flute as an alternative. In the Sonata No 2 in C he provides some different material for the flute in the last movement, in Sonata No 6 in e minor the material is the same. But in both cases he avoids any double-stopping.

The influence of Corelli is notable in the structure: nine of them are in four movements, following the pattern of the Italian sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera, the Sonata No 5 in A and the Sonata No 11 in B flat are in three movements, whereas the Sonata No 4 in D has five movements. These sonatas show an amazing amount of variety. There are a number of movements with frequent double-stopping, some movements are quite theatrical, whereas others are written in truly cantabile style. In contrast to Corelli Leclair seldom makes use of the form of the fugue: the only two fugues appear in the last sonata of the set. Two movements are based on an ostinato bass: the andante from the Sonata No 4 and the sarabanda from Sonata No 9 in A. The latter movement is a set of variations.

Notable is the absence of the kind of character piece which was quite popular among French composers of his time - as in the Pièces de clavecin en concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau. But Leclair is not afraid to include some folkloristic elements, something which one won't find in Corelli.

Adrian Butterfield has grasped the character of Leclair's sonatas very well. He plays them with panache and shows a good feeling for the various features of these compositions. In general the articulation and the dynamic shading are satisfying, and much attention has been paid to the rhythmic pulse. Many movements really come off like dance music. This is also due to the excellent support of Alison McGillivray and Laurence Cummings. I would have liked the former's viola da gamba to have a bit more presence, though. Too often it isn't as clearly audible as it should be.

One sonata I compared with the recording by François Fernandez (Astrée), and I think he is more subtle in his phrasing and articulation; his performance is also more speech-like. Sometimes I felt Adrian Butterfield's performance is a bit too showy, with too much emphasis on the spectacular elements of Leclair's sonatas. But this could well be a matter of taste. It doesn't prevent me from recommending this set, which testifies to Leclair's greatness as a composer and as a performer. In particular lovers of music for violin will enjoy these three discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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Adrian Butterfield

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