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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (l’Aîné) (1697-1764)
Complete Flute Chamber Music
Sonata in C, Op.1/2 (1723) [15:35]
Sonata in e minor, Op.9/2 (1737-8) [12:20]
Sonata in G, Op.9/7 (1737-8) [12:17]
Sonata in e minor, Op.1/6 (1723) [11:54]
Trio Sonata in D, Op.2/8 (1728) [8:34]
Sonata in G, Op.2/5 (1728) [9:30]
Sonata in C, Op.2/3 (1728) [9:37]
Sonata in b minor, Op.2/11 (1728) [6:29]
Sonata in e minor, Op.2/1 (1728) [11:11]
Deuxième récréation de musique in g minor, Op.8 for two flutes and continuo (ca. 1737) [26:19]
Fenwick Smith (flute); John Gibbons (harpsichord); Laura Blustein (cello); Laura Jeppesen (viola da gamba, Op.2/8); Christopher Krueger (flute, Op.8)
rec. 16-17 November 2003, 3-4 April 2005, 15-16 June 2005, 30 October 2005 and 11 December 2005, Sonic Temple, Roslindale, MA, USA.
Booklet with notes in English and French
NAXOS 8.557440-1 [60:40 + 63:06] 

 


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 review 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 so.

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 editions.

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 violins. 

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 adequate. 

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 Naxos’s best-sellers.

Brian Wilson

 


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