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Jean Baptiste SENALLIÉ (1687-90?-1730)
Troisième Livre de Sonates à violon seul avec la basse continue (1720)
Ensemble Baroques Graffiti (Jaroslav Adamus (violin); Jean-Paul Serra (harpsichord); Frederic Audibert (cello))
Eglise de Saint Théodore, Marseille, 4-8 August 2004, DDD

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It’s a particular pleasure on this occasion to welcome a disc from a label new to me, by an ensemble equally unfamiliar, and in repertoire featuring a composer who I considered, up to now, as little more than a by-line in the histories of the period.

Whilst in his masterly study. French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau, James R Anthony accords Jean Baptiste Senallié only a page or so of text, he nevertheless describes him as: "… the most important composer (of violin sonatas) between Couperin and Leclair."

Like many of his compatriots, Senallié made the long journey across the Alps to study in Italy, the recognised home of string music. In fact he became the gifted pupil of Tommaso Antonio Vitali, a resident of Modena, and published some fifty sonatas in five books between 1701 and 1727 on his return to his native land.

In an article in the Mercure de France, the correspondent describes how Senallié had brought back Italian techniques, to the benefit of the sonata in France, reporting, "… his Airs de Symphonie were agreeable, and everybody was charmed by them, and wished to know how to play them …"

Unfortunately this proved to be a problem for many amateurs, since they are often very difficult to play.

By the early 1700s the structure of the sonata in Europe had largely been established under the towering influence of the Italian School, Arcangelo Corelli in particular. Whether of the da chiesa (church) or da camera (chamber) variety, they fell into a four movement form, alternating slow/fast/slow/fast movements.

Although Senallié did not introduce any structural modifications, he did expand the sonata’s harmonic vocabulary, particularly in the use of bimodality. This resulted, to quote James Anthony, in sonatas of a "purposeful ambiguity". The soloist also has to surmount at times some very difficult passagework, including sections in the 7th position on the E string.

Although he attracted a certain cachet during his lifetime Senallié didn’t really gain substantial benefit from it, dying in semi-obscurity in a modest Parisian dwelling, on the Rue Petit Pont, at the age of only 43. Yet to his credit he had successfully created in his music a bridge between baroque manners and French classicism – one which Leclair was successfully to exploit in the years ahead.

In Ensemble Baroques Graffiti Senallié has found some enthusiastic and able advocates. A group based at the Church of St Théodore in Marseille, it draws together musicians from all over Europe; in this instance whilst the harpsichordist and cellist are both French, the violinist is a promising young Polish player, Jaroslav Adamus.

Generally he meets the challenges of the music admirably, although I’m duty bound to report that intonation is very occasionally suspect on sustained notes - e.g. at the end of track 27, the third movement of sonata no 7 - but I really wouldn’t want to make too much of this. Adamus seems to have an unfailing grasp of what the music is about, and appears to be really enjoying what he is playing.

More irritating may be the soloists’ tendency to sniff quite loudly, which I know will alienate some listeners, especially listening on headphones. Also the very abrupt editing of the end of movements is rather disconcerting. Frequently tracks descend into black silence immediately on the cessation of the music rather than allowing the venue’s atmosphere to decay gently. This may however be explained by the fact that my review disc is clearly marked "sample", and so I assume this factor has been addressed in sale copies.

Whatever caveats I have about the presentation I can recommend the music without qualification. It is full of interest and in the hands of these performers it really bounces off the page. Listen for example to the ‘cat and mouse’ finale of the 7th sonata, with its interplay between violin and cello. The sonatas incidentally are described as with "basse continue", which is varied throughout; sometimes using the cello, sometimes the harpsichord and sometimes both.

Incidentally the review CD also boasted titling, which is not common on commercial discs, and could only be accessed on a newish Marantz player. I am unsure whether this facility will be available on the commercial issue.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this CD and look forward to hearing some more of Senallié who, whilst not quite so sophisticated as Leclair, is a composer well worth hearing. Moreover I also look forward to hearing these artists again, a very fruitful collaboration between the old East and West. On to another Livre?

Ian Bailey

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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