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Les Plaisirs Les Plus Charmants: French Baroque Guitar Music
Francesco CORBETTA (1615-1681) Prelude and Chiacona in C major; Caprice de chaconne; Suite in A minor.
Robert de VISEE (1656-1725) Suite in C major;
Henry GRENERIN (1668-1748) Suite in D major;
Remy MEDARD (fl.17th Century) Suite in G major;
Antoine CARRE (fl.17th Century) ; Six pieces from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Visee ‘Masquerade’,
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728) Air,
LULLY (1632-1687) Entrée d’Isis and Entrée d’Apollon;
Francois COUPERIN (1668-1733) Soeur Monéique
Gordon Ferries (guitar)
Recorded at the Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh, January 2003
DELPHIAN DCD 34011 [72.14]

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Have you ever wondered why the guitarists in so many of Watteau’s (1684-1721) pictures are playing so enthusiastically compared with say, Vermeer’s (1632-1675) lutenists who appear to be tuning up?

The reason is that this instrument is always associated with amorous involvement which once one has looked more deeply into the picture becomes quite explicit. If male, the guitarists in Watteau are often accompanied by kneeling, attractive girls in low cut dresses, who, as in the deliciously entitled ‘La Gamme d’Amour’ (The scale of love – note the musical illusion) are often to be seen holding the music and gazing up into the musician’s eyes. The same can be said of ‘La Recréation Gallante’ (1717). In ‘Mezzetin’ the guitarist is singing to his own playing to some off- stage lover, and in ‘L'Ensigne de Gersaint’ the singing guitarist’s company seems distinctly shady. In Vermeer’s ‘The Love Letter’ the lady guitarist is holding the letter. But in ‘Woman playing the Lute’ she is obviously tuning it whilst gazing with a fixed stare out of a window, for … well one must decide for oneself.

But perhaps when you look at Watteau’s ‘Recréation Galante’ you are actually seeing Remy Medard or even more possibly Henri Grenerin both featured on this CD.

According to Gordon Ferries’ own fascinating booklet essay the guitar’s lack of immediate popularity in the early 17th Century can be put down to the fact that it was associated with loose women, seductive dances much hated by the church throughout history, and illicit sex. By contrast the lute had a more genteel background, it played largely contrapuntal music, even motet transcriptions, or accompanied spiritual songs or played solo, virtuoso toccatas. The lute took and still takes a chronic amount of time to tune whereas the plain six-string guitar takes only moments. The lute takes a lifetime to master whereas, as many a teenager will tell you, the guitar is more easily tackled and can be made to be convincing after only a short time. Even worse, the guitar player can and does strum basic and crude rhythms (as in Corbetta’s Chiaccona in C) while the lute concentrates on melodies.

To popularize the guitar it needed a man of genius, diplomacy and influence. By the middle of the 17th century it had found one: Francesco Corbetta. He is not a composer of the first division; in fact I could only put him into the ‘conference league’ but he was certainly popular in his day. The quote from Samuel Pepys’ diary, given in the booklet indicates as much: August 5th 1667 "…..I spied Signior Francisco tuning his guitar and Monsieur de Puy with him, who did make him play to me, which he did most admirably …"

Corbetta and his contemporaries gave the guitar suites of dances to play. These were for the entertainment of the court and the upper classes as well as for lesser folk. This was music everyone might relate to played on an inexpensive instrument many could afford. These suites consist of an opening Prelude along with a courante, a sarabande and probably a gigue as well as a mixture of other popular dances of the time.

Whether French or English this pattern in the Suite varied little and each movement was also in one unifying key. These pieces were not meant to be danced to but only listened to.

On the other side was the more serious influence of Lully and the French opera of the court of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’. This music represented the height of aristocratic artistic fashion and could to a certain extent be emulated. This is reflected not only in the Sarabande (with its emphasis on beat 2 i.e., 1, 2, 3) of which Carre’s suite has no less than three, and the ‘Passacaile’ but also in a group of six transcriptions for guitar from a manuscript found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The latter represents composers like Lully and Marais whose ‘Air’ is from his opera ‘Alcione’ of 1706 as well as a transcription of a harpsichord piece by Couperin. All of these are an attempt to give the instrument even more respectability.

Gordon Ferries is quite definitely a master of this repertoire and plays delightfully. I must however take issue with the recording. Not for the first time with guitar or lute recordings the microphone has been placed too close. What one hears is too much hand and string movement, sometimes even rhythmically piercing the dances on the same beat of each bar as in the Gigue of Medard’s Suite.

Two guitars are used for this recording, one by Sutherland after a Voboam instrument of 1760 and an actual French instrument of the same date. I’m ashamed to say that I am unable to recognize a difference between them. But a word of warning; the sound is not entirely like a modern instrument. My eldest son, a guitarist himself, described the sound produced in non-technical language as ‘twangy’

I’m sorry to say that I cannot be sure whether or not to recommend this disc for the general listener. My interest in early music was not particularly roused and the music did not hold my attention. It does however represent its period perfectly. I have nothing but praise for Gordon Ferries’ musicianship, care and determination to present this music, mostly for the first time for two hundred and fifty years, to a modern audience.

Gary Higginson

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