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François FRANCOEUR (1698 - 1787): "Violin Sonatas"

Ensemble Daimonion

rec: Jan 2 - 5, 2016, Müllheim (D)
Passacaille - 1021 (© 2016) (69'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata II in e minor; Sonata IV in B flat; Sonata VI in g minor; Sonata VII in c minor; Sonata IX in d minor; Sonata X in D

Anaïs Chen, violin; Daniel Rosin, cello; María González, harpsichord

It is common knowledge that the Italian style was not very popular - to say the least - in France, until the death of Louis XIV. However, as Marc Vanscheeuwijk rightly states in the liner-notes to the present disc, this picture is a bit one-sided. Not everything was what it looked like. There always was a circle of musicians and music lovers who were interested in and appreciated what was produced in Italy. The best-known representative of this circle was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who for a number of years was in the service of Madame de Guise, who also loved Italian music. Another one was Sébastien de Brossard, who owned a large collection of music, which included many Italian works.

At the end of the 17th century various composers had already adopted elements of the Italian style. Ironally, the first who composed trio sonatas - a basically Italian invention - was Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who enjoyed the special protection of Louis XIV. Another one was François Couperin. He later published some of his early pieces as part of the collection Les Nations and later openly confessed his preference for a mixture of the best in both styles in his collection Les Goûts-Réünis ou Nouveaux Concerts. But the death of Louis XIV in 1715 did make a difference. That was largely due to the fact that France was a centralised state and Paris was the centre of the music scene. Louis was succeeded by Philippe de Orléans, acting as regent for the underaged Louis XV. He was a great admirer of the Italian style and this had a positive influence on the opening of the music scene to foreign influences.

Italian music was played in the Concert Spirituel, one of the most important concert organisations in France. One of the most frequently performed composers was Antonio Vivaldi. Composing for the violin came increasingly under Italian influence and as a result showed an increase in virtuosity. The oeuvre of Jean-Marie Leclair testifies to this development. He was a towering figure and today his sonatas for the violin are probably the most frequently-performed specimens of that genre. However, there were more composers who adopted elements of the Italian style, which they mixed with French tradition. The present disc includes six sonatas from a collection of twelve, which were printed in 1730. The composer is François Francoeur, who has become mainly known as a composer of music for the theatre, in close cooperation with François Rebel, the son of Jean-Féry.

Francoeur was the son of a musician: his father played bass violin and was a member of the élite 24 Violons du Roi. François entered the opera orchestra as well, in 1710, when he was just 12. Here he met Rebel who was one year his senior. Because of their young age they were called 'the little violins'. They would cooperate life-long and produced many operas. Until today it has been impossible to discern between their respective contributions to their collective pieces for the theatre. If asked about that they replied: "This piece is by both of us".

Francoeur's activities in the field of opera could well be one of the reasons that his output in the realm of chamber music has received little attention. It is telling that the article on Francoeur in New Grove almost completely ignores this part of his oeuvre. On ArkivMusic one can hardly find any discs which include some of his chamber music works.

That said, chamber music undoubtedly takes a minor place in his oeuvre. Only two collections of sonatas are known. In 1720 he published a set of ten sonatas for violin and bc. This was followed ten years later by the 2e livre, comprising twelve sonatas for the same scoring. The last of the set has an independent part for viola da gamba or cello. However, in the other sonatas the string bass - the performers have chosen the option of the cello - also sometimes manifests itself as a participant in its own right, for instance in the opening adagio from the Sonata IX in d minor.

The sonatas vary in the number of movements and the way these are arranged. The sonatas on this disc have four (II, IV), five (VI, VII, X) or six (IX) movements. All of them open with an adagio; it is especially here that the Italian influence comes to the fore. The opening adagio from the Sonata VI in g minor, for instance, is full of Italian pathos. Then follow a number of dance movements: courante, allemande, sarabande, gavotte, sicilienne. Four sonatas close with a rondeau, a form which became increasingly fashionable in the course of the first half of the 18th century. In the Sonata IX the rondeau takes fourth place; it is followed by another adagio and a movement called gay. The titles of the movements bear witness to the fact that these pieces are specimens of the goûts réunis, which was more or less the standard at the time. The choice between viola da gamba and cello given to the performers is further evidence of that.

The sonatas are technically quite demanding. Francoeur makes use of multiple stops and rapid arpeggio figurations; the latter are included in the rondeau from the Sonata VII in c minor. Overall the rondeaus are the most extroverted pieces in these sonatas. Take for instance the rondeau which closes the Sonata X in D. A book on French violin music of 1922 calls it a chasse, the depiction of hunting. It is a pretty wild piece; here we are far from the restraint which was one of the features of French culture under Louis XIV.

I have greatly enjoyed this disc. Every sonata is a real gem. The Sonata IV in B flat is a very fine example of Francoeur's art. It opens with an expressive adagio which is followed by a swinging courante and a gorgeous lyrical sarabande, and ends with a sparkling gigue. It is also a specimen of the skills of the artists: this sonata is given a wonderful performance. It makes you really feel the dance rhythms. Some listeners will find it difficult to keep their feet still. Technically the playing of the three members of Daimonion is immaculate. But their interpretation is also exemplary: this recording is the best possible case for Francoeur's violin sonatas.

In fact, it is one of the best discs with music for violin I have heard recently. And can we have Francoeur's other sonatas, please?

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Daimonion

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