Full marks to Naxos for
what they do so often and so well – spotting a gap in the market
and filling it. Leclair did the same thing himself when he
published his Op.1, Op.2 and Op.9 Violin Sonatas by identifying
eight works in which the violin could be played on the flûte
allemande or transverse flute. Only the end of Op.1/2 is
too low for the flute: the solution employed here, for the flute
to stop and allow the continuo to complete the final cadence
of the Gigue, sounds perfectly acceptable.
There is, so far as I am
aware, only one other set which claims to include Leclair’s
complete flute sonatas, recorded in 1984 by Barthold and Wieland
Kuijken and Robert Kohnen (ACC30035) and strongly recommended
by my colleague Johan van Veen in 2004 (see review).
At around £13 in the UK, that set is only slightly more expensive
than the current Naxos issue.
It is also slightly less
complete, since it does not contain the Deuxième récréation,
a substantial piece, the Chaconne from which has been
described by John Solum in The Early Flute as “one of
the greatest movements ever conceived for flute.” The question,
therefore, is whether these sonatas sit well with the flute
replacing the violin, how good these performances are, and how
essential the Deuxième récréation really is.
My first test, as usual,
was to play the music through without listening critically but
noting for later investigation anything which jarred. This
test was passed almost with flying colours: if you’re looking
for music to play in the background when you have friends round,
and you’ve all heard Vivaldi too often in this context, here
is your ideal replacement.
The one thing which jarred
slightly at this initial stage was the closeness of the recording
when played at my normal listening level and the prominence
which it sometimes gives to the cello at the expense of the
harpsichord. I don’t want to hear a large harpsichord clattering
away at the expense of the other instruments, but I’d like it
to sound like an equal partner with the cello. This is not
one of Naxos’s best recent recordings.
The first problem partly
disappears with a reduction of 2 or 3dB on the volume control.
The second problem stems from the use of the cello, a problem
which disappears only in the performance of Op.2/8. This is
the only work on these discs which is designated a Trio Sonata
– i.e there are three genuinely independent parts. In the scores
of the other sonatas the figured bass may be played on a keyboard
instrument, harpsichord or organ, or on a suitable stringed
instrument, cello or gamba, or both.
Those who have read my
of Volume 2 of the Naxos Corelli Op.5 Sonatas may recall that
I have run this argument round the block before. Corelli indicates
that his sonatas may be played with violone ò cembalo,
i.e. with a string or keyboard instrument providing the continuo.
Most modern recordings, having access to both instruments, interpret
Corelli’s or as and, but the Naxos version employs
only the harpsichord. I had expected to find the result somehow
lacking but, instead, it turned out to be refreshing.
What have Corelli’s sonatas
of 1700 to do with Leclair’s of 1723-38? As the Naxos booklet
points out, Leclair’s principal accomplishment was the adaptation
of the style of Corelli and Vivaldi to French tastes and, as
far as the violin sonata was concerned, Corelli’s Op.5, published
on January 1st, 1700, set the tone for a generation.
The previous musical age
in France had been dominated by the argument whether the French
style of Rameau or the Italian style of Lully was the greater
– a fruitless argument for modern listeners, who tend not to
hear much difference between them. Leclair’s older contemporary
François Couperin celebrated the end of the argument with his
work Les goûts réunis and Leclair’s own music contributed
to the process. Leclair had studied in Italy with one of Corelli’s
pupils and Blainville described him as ‘the French Corelli’.
The Accent recording employs
both harpsichord and viola da gamba for the continuo, a practice
followed on the Naxos version only in the case of the Trio Sonata,
where Laura Jeppesen’s gamba replaces the cello. Jeppesen is
a former pupil of Wieland Kuijken and her playing here makes
this sonata, for me, the highlight of the first CD. It isn’t
merely that the lighter sound of the gamba is more appealing:
the contrapuntal writing and the quality of the performance,
marked by greater variety in the playing also play a part.
I realise that the viola
da gamba would have been thought of as a rather old-fashioned
instrument and that the cello was the up-and-coming instrument
of the age, but I could wish that the gamba had been employed
in at least some of the other sonatas. Otherwise this is pleasant
music, well played, but I have to admit to finding over two
hours of flute, harpsichord and cello a little too much of a
good thing. There just isn’t enough substance in Leclair’s
flute music to justify a double-album. Like the poetry of Pope,
a little goes a long way.
A mixed programme of violin
and flute versions might have been more to the point. It’s
a bit late now to ask Naxos for that mixed programme, but how
about supplementing your one short Leclair violin piece (a Kreisler
arrangement on 8.557872) with a recording of Leclair’s Violin
Sonatas, perhaps with the performers whose Corelli I enjoyed?
(I know that Naxos read these reviews because they offer my
review of the Corelli on their website.) Come to think of it,
having mentioned it above, how about a version of Couperin’s
Les goûts réunis?
Comparison of the timings
for these sonatas is instructive. The Naxos performances are
mostly faster than the Accent: in the case of Op.9/2 by a considerable
margin (12:20 against 16:35). At times they do sound a little
hurried and, therefore, slightly inclined to seem perfunctory
in places, though, heard in their own context, not excessively
In Op.1/2, on the other
hand, they are slower by a considerable margin (15:35 against
13:29). Yet the Naxos performances do not sound slow:
if anything, the opening Adagio is taken rather fast
at the outset, the Gavotte third movement is certainly
grazioso, and the Corrette second movement and
Giga finale are lively enough. Without having access
to the scores of these sonatas, I can only assume that the two
sets of performers adopt different approaches to repeats. The
Naxos players use modern facsimiles of 18th-century
There is online access
to the score
of the Deuxième récréation. The suitability of this work
for two flutes or violins is proclaimed on the title page, which,
judging by the eighteenth-century spelling, is original not
editorial : d’une exécution facile Composée pour deux Fluttes
ou pour deux Violons et la Basse Continue. The fact that the flutes are named first here is significant:
this music is, if anything, better suited to them than to two
This Suite or Ouverture in seven movements is described by Fenwick Smith as an ‘exceptional’
work. I listened to it, therefore, with models by Telemann
and Bach in mind. It may not be quite in that league, apart,
perhaps, from the Chaconne, but its absence from the Accent CD and its presence here
is a strong argument in favour of the new set, whatever reservations
I may have had about the rest of this set.
If the performance of the Trio Sonata
is the crowning point of the first CD, this account of the Récréation stands in the same relation to the second. It was the last
item on these two CDs to be recorded, over two years later than
the first pieces, and everything gels here in terms of performance
and recording balance much better than before. It may be d’une exécution facile but elementary players would have to try very hard to match
the performance here.
The players add little
other than the obvious ornamentation to what is written in the
score. Fenwick Smith’s booklet notes defend this decision with
reference to Leclair’s own stated opinions about “the confusion
of notes that are sometimes added to melodic and expressive
passages, and which serve only to disfigure them.” The modern
rediscovery of early-music practice certainly initially led
some performers to perpetrate this kind of confusion worse confounded
and I accept that it was probably wise to play safe, but I might
have enjoyed these performances more if there had been more
variety in the playing.
Biographical notes on Leclair
tend to be fixated on the fact that he was murdered. Those seeking
information on him which takes the reader beyond that point
will find all they need in an article by Dr David Wright here
on MusicWeb. Otherwise the notes in the booklet are perfectly
The cover features a painting
of the Muses by LeSueur which predates the music by half a century
but is, nevertheless, apt. As usual with Naxos, nothing about
these CDs looks bargain-basement.
Flute fanciers and musicologists
will want these CDs but they won’t have the widespread appeal
of the Corelli; I doubt whether they are set to become one of