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Pierre Danican PHILIDOR (1681 - 1731): "Suittes pour hautbois"

L'Assemblée des Honnestes Curieux

rec: March & May, 2007, Paris, Église St Marcel
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 080203 (© 2008) (65'09")

5e Suitte for oboe and bc in d minor; 5e Suitte for oboe and bc in g minor; 1e Suitte for 2 oboes in g minor; 3e Suitte for 2 oboes in d minor; 3e Suitte de trios for 2 oboes and bc in C

Antoine Torunczyk, Alfredo Bernardini, oboe; Baldomera Barciela, viola da gamba; Benjamin Perrot, theorbo, guitar; Chiaopin Kuo, harpsichord

Pierre Danican Philidor was a member of one of the three largest musical dynasties of the French baroque. The other two were the Hotteterres and the Couperins. The article on the Philidor family in New Grove mentions only five composers but these are only the better-known members of this dynasty. The earliest musician in the family whom we know about was Michel Danican - as the family's original name was - who played the oboe at the court of Louis XIII. His two sons, Michel and Jean, were members of the Grande Écurie, one of the royal music ensembles. It was Jean who was the first to be referred to with the name 'Philidor'. One of the best-known members of the family is Jean's son André Danican Philidor 'le père'. In his capacity as music librarian of Louis XIV he copied numerous compositions which were part of the repertoire of the court's ensembles (the so-called Philidor-collection). He was married twice, and got 23 children, some of whom became musicians as well. Pierre Danican Philidor, to whom this disc is devoted, was his nephew, a son of his older brother Jacques Danican Philidor 'le cadet'.

Pierre started composing at an early age, and took over his father's position as oboist of the Grands Hautbois. Later on he became a member of the chambre du roy where Marin Marais and François Couperin were among his colleagues. There seems to be some confusion as to exactly what he has composed. The article in New Grove says: "In 1717 and 1718 he published three books of suites, half of them intended for two unaccompanied flutes, the others for two treble instruments and continuo." But in the worklist the only suites with basso continuo are for one treble instrument. The present disc doesn't make things any clearer: the programme notes don't tell us anything about what Pierre Danican Philidor exactly has written and the tracklist doesn't give any sources either. The record company should have done a better job in this respect.

The programme notes are interesting, however, in clearing up some confusing information about Philidor's position in the chambre du roy. He was referred to as joueur de viole (player of the viol). The authors in New Grove take this for granted as they say "he became a member of the chambre du roi as a viol player". But Antoine Torunczyk writes: "Faced with a viol, Pierre would very likely have looked for somewhere to blow into". He states that the post of oboist of the chambre du roy did not exist, and that the title of 'player of the viol' doesn't mean he actually played the instrument - it's just a formal title. This is in line with all we know about the Philidor family: they were a dynasty of wind players.

In a short essay in the booklet the American oboist Bruce Haynes presents Pierre Danican Philidor as one of the last representatives of the aesthetics of the era of the Sun King. After his death in 1715 the taste began to change, but Philidor and others who adhered to the ideals of Louis XIV - in particular François Couperin and Marais - were still alive and composing. Philidor was highly appreciated by the King as the high annual pension which Louis XIV awarded him testifies. The fact that there was no official post of oboist of the 'chambre du roy' indicates that before Philidor no oboist had been an official member of the ensemble. Philidor was the first, another sign of his high standing.

The music on this disc amply shows the high calibre of Philidor as a composer, and - as one may assume he wrote this music for his own performances in the first place - as a performer. The real character of these suites - three of them in four movements, the other two in 6 or 7 - is revealed by the interpreters and their approach to this repertoire. Especially interesting is that one of the players, Alfredo Bernardini, has made two identical copies of historical instrument, keeping the original pitch (a=ca. 400 Hz) and the original tuning which is close to mean tone. The instruments used in the basso continuo are tuned likewise. As a result the two oboes blend perfectly, but in some movements the tuning leads to some very sharp dissonances. Examples are the 'rigaudon en rondeau' of the 1e Suitte in g minor, the lengthy 'simphonie tendre' from the 3e Suitte de trios in C - a magnificently expressive piece - and the 'lentement', the opening movement of the 3e Suitte in g minor. On the other end of the scale is the sweetly flowing 'sicilienne' from the 3e Suitte de trios or the sarabande from the 5e Suitte in d minor which the composer asked for to be played 'très tendrement' - and that is exactly how Antoine Torunczyk plays it. The two fast movements from this suite are played with great verve. The disc ends on a light note with a 'paysanne' - a kind of piece which was very popular at the time and is characterised by a drone.

This disc is an ear-opener for everyone who thinks French music of the baroque era is merely to please the ear. These performances show that composers were aiming at strong expression now and then, and to that end even didn't avoid harsh dissonances. I can't describe the interpretation in other terms than brilliant and exciting. The use of these particular instruments, the tuning and the way the then common ornamentation, in particular the flattement, has been applied all contribute to the splendour of the performances on this disc. I strongly recommend it - and may I politely ask for more?

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

L'Assemblée des Honnestes Curieux

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