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Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665 - 1729): "Sonates pour violon"

Les Dominos

rec: Oct 2010, Centeilles, …glise Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 310 (© 2011) (78'32")
Liner-notes: E/F/D

Sonata I in d minor; Sonata II in D; Sonata III in F; Sonata IV in G; Sonata V in a minor; Sonata VI in A

Source: Sonates pour le Viollon et pour le Clavecin, 1707

Florence Malgoire, violin; Guido Balestracci, viola da gamba; Jonathan Rubin, theorbo, guitar; Blandine Rannou, harpsichord

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a remarkable woman, and it doesn't suprise that she has attracted the attention of modern performers. The very fact that she was a woman and a celebrated musician and composer at the same time is remarkable in itself. Even more so the fact that she enjoyed the protection of Louis XIV. This must have made it much easier for her make her mark in the French music scene of the early 18th century.

She was born into a family which was heavily involved in music - consisting of musicians and instrument-makers - and married someone with the same background. Marin de La Guerre was an organist like her father, and he also was from a family of musicians. After her husband died she continued to perform and compose, and presented the sonatas for violin and basso continuo at the court in 1707. The Mercura Galant reported: "Dinner being over, His Majesty spoke to Mlle de la Guerre in a most gracious manner; after having praised her sonatas extensively, he said to her that they could not be compared to any other such works. Mlle de la Guerre could not have received higher praise, for these words revealed that the King had not only found her music to be most fine, but also to be original - a quality that today is extremely rare". This shows that Louis XIV wasn't as dismissive towards the Italian style as he sometimes is portrayed.

These sonatas reflect the ideal of many composers of those days: the mixture of Italian and French elements. The violin was just in the process of being established as a solo instrument, whereas before it was only used in the orchestra. And the form of the sonata was also of Italian origin, whereas French composers used to write suites. Louis was absolutely right in saying that Jacquet de la Guerre's sonatas "could not be compared to any other such works". Her sonatas don't follow the model of the Corellian sonata da chiesa with its four movements in the order slow-fast-slow-fast. Only the Sonata II in D has four movements, three of which have the indication presto. Only the second is a slow movement, adagio. The Sonatas III, IV and V are in five movements, the Sonata I in d minor has seven, the Sonata VI in A eight. There seems to be no pattern in the order of slow and fast movements. The character indications are limited in number: most are called adagio, presto or aria. Some are without a character indication, and only two refer to a dance: a courante in the Sonata V in a minor and an allemande which opens the Sonata VI in A. Some movements are in two or three contrasting sections, like the opening of the Sonata IV in G/g minor which seems to have the character of an overture: slow-fast-slow.

The title page says Sonates pour le Viollon et pour le Clavecin, but this doesn't indicate a concertante role of the harpsichord. The bass line is figured, and should be interpreted as a basso continuo. Interestingly various movements contain episodes in which the bass line has some additional notes at the top of the stave. This seems to indicate the participation of a string bass, most likely a viola da gamba. That isn't mentioned in the score, but it is difficult to see another option, in particular as in some of those episodes the violin and the viola da gamba are developing a dialogue which includes imitation of motifs. In such passages these solo sonatas get the texture of a trio sonata. That is no justification to refer to these sonatas as Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba obbligato and bc as the title of the recording by La RÍveuse says. It should be mentioned here that six trio sonatas by Jacquet de la Guerre have been preserved in manuscript, in which the viola da gamba has a solo role. Some of them have been recorded by La RÍveuse.

There are quite some differences between the two performances. The tempi of the fast movements are largely the same, but Les Dominos take the slow movements very slow. Those which have no character indications are mostly played as lento, whereas la RÍveuse interprets them as grave. The most striking example is the opening movement of the Sonata III in F: Les Dominos take 2'32", la RÍveuse only 1'30". The movements which are called aria are also different. The aria from the Sonata I in d minor lasts 3'44" in La RÍveuse's performance, whereas Les Dominos need 5'11". It is not possible to say who is right, but to me the tempi of the slow movements in Les Dominos's recording is too slow. I also would have liked more differentiation between the notes and in general more dynamic shading. The Italianate traits in these sonatas do come off better in La RÍveuse's recording. Even so, Les Dominos offer much to enjoy, and this recording contains the whole set, whereas La RÍveuse has chosen three sonatas. So they can easily coexist.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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