musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Elisabeth JACQUET DE LE GUERRE (1665 - 1729): Pièces de clavecin

[I] "Pièces de clavecin L 1,2"
Elisabetta Guglielmin, harpsichorda
rec: April 2 - 3, 2017, Pove del Grappa (Vi, IT), Saletta Acustica 'Eric James'
OnClassical - OC17091b (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.56'36")
Liner-notes: E/F/IT
Cover & track-list

[II] "L'inconstante"
Marie van Rhijn, harpsichordb
rec: Oct 6 - 7, 2017, Les Hauts de France
Evidence - EVCD047 (© 2017) (65'49")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pièces de Clavessin, 1687:
[Suite I] in d minorab; [Suite II] in g minora; [Suite III] in a minorab; [Suite IV] in Fab
Pièces de clavecin qui se peuvent se joüer sur le viollon, 1707:
[Suite I] in d minora (La Flamandeb); [Suite II] in Ga


Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre lived in a time in which women were active in music as singers and as players of particularly the keyboard, but not as composers in their own right. This is certainly one of the reasons that her music enjoys considerable interest of performers of our time. However, that is certainly not the only reason. It is also the quality and the variety of her oeuvre that explains the fact that she is rather well represented in the catalogue.

She was born into a musical family; her father, Claude Jacquet, was organist at the church of l'Île Saint-Louis in Paris and was active as a keyboard teacher. His four children were all educated in music: Pierre and Nicolas became organists, and Anne was a member of the chapel of Madame de Guise, for a number of years the employer of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Elisabeth was a child prodigy at the harpsichord and performed as such before Louis XIV. He was so impressed that she enjoyed his protection until his death. It allowed her to publish her compositions, among them the first book of harpsichord pieces of 1687, which she dedicated to the Sun King. She was one of only four French composers of the 17th century who had their harpsichord pieces being published.

In 1684 she married the organist Marin de La Guerre and added his name to hers. Her marriage resulted in the birth of a son who was just as talented as his mother, but died at the age of ten. Elisabeth worked all her life as a performer and a teacher, and continued to compose. In 1707 a second book of harpsichord pieces was printed. She also composed sonatas for violin and basso continuo, and was one of the first French composers to write trio sonatas. Her chamber music shows the influence of the Italian style. In addition she wrote vocal music: a Te Deum, which is lost, secular songs as well as chamber cantatas, among them some on biblical subjects. Lastly she composed a ballet (which is lost) and a tragédie lyrique, which was premiered in 1694: Céphale et Procris.

The Pièces de Clavessin of 1687 comprise four suites which all open with a prélude non mesuré, which had its roots in the lute music of the 17th century. It is explained by her colleague Nicolas Lebègue: "[A] prelude is nothing other than a preparation for playing pieces in one particular key, it is just to get a feeling of the keyboard which is to be played, before actually performing the suites, and to experiment with the tonality to be used, which is why I have not used bar lines, because nothing is fixed". The notation is mostly in whole notes with additional slurs which show the organisation and possible duration of the notes. It is up to the imagination of the interpreter to realise such preludes.

They are followed by a sequence of dances. Whereas other composers often left it to the performer to put together his own suites (Louis Couperin is a good example), Jacquet de la Guerre has clearly organised the suites. Four dances form the framework of every suite: allemande, a pair of courantes, sarabande and gigue. Every suite closes with a menuet. In addition we hear other types of dances: the Suite in D and the Suite in F include a cannaris, the Suite in a minor a gavotte. In the latter we also find a chaconne; a second such piece is the chaconne L'inconstante in the Suite in a minor; this piece gave Marie van Rhijn's disc its title. Notable is that the menuet which closes the Suite in g minor is followed by a double. And, returning to the préludes, the Suite in F opens with a particular form of prelude, entitled tocade. It is unique in French harpsichord music; it opens as a traditional unmeasured prelude, but the largest part is notated more precisely, and modelled after Italian toccatas as we know them, for instance, from Frescobaldi.

The second book of harpsichord works was published in 1707, and comprises only two suites. It is notable that, according to the title, these pieces can also performed on the violin. The liner-notes of the various recordings in my collection don't touch this issue. These pieces were published together with six further sonatas for violin and basso continuo. The prélude non mesuré had gone out of fashion towards the end of the 17th century and is omitted here. The Suite in d minor opens with a character piece, La Flamande with a double. Catherine Cessac, in her liner-notes to Marie van Rhijn's recording, suggests that this may be a reference to the large Flemish harpsichord with two keyboards owned by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. This movement is followed by a sequence of dances, some of them again with a double, including a rigaudon, and lastly a chaconne. The Suite in G opens with the four standard dances, which are followed by a menuet and a rondeau. The latter was to become one of the main forms in the course of the 18th century.

Over the years I have heard several recordings of the complete harpsichord oeuvre by Jacquet de la Guerre, but none of them really satisfied me. The performances by Elisabetta Guglielmin are not any different, I'm afraid. There are certainly a number of pieces that come off rather well, but there are also some dances which are a bit stiff and awkward, such as the gigue from the Suite in d minor of 1687. The unmeasured preludes are the most disappointing parts of this recording, as Guglielmin's realisations are not very imaginative and improvisatory.

In contrast, these are among the assets of Marie van Rhijn's recording. She plays the preludes quite beautifully, and their improvisational character comes off perfectly. Other highlights are the sarabande from the above-mentioned Suite in d minor, and the two chaconnes. Her own double for the menuet which concludes the Suite in d minor further attests to her imaginative approach of the music she has selected. She deliberately put aside the idea of a complete recording. Obviously she is entitled to such a decision, but I find it regrettable, especially in the light of the fact that - at least for me - there is no complete recording which is entirely satisfying. But let's enjoy what she has given us, with the help of a splendid historical instrument of 1679.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Marie van Rhijn

CD Reviews