De Visée has had rather less attention – in the English-speaking
world at any rate – than he deserves. This excellent release should
surely do much to put that right. Both Segovia and Bream occasionally
played (and recorded) pieces by him, but there have been relatively
few opportunities to get to know his work in extenso. His
name is perhaps more often encountered in connection with the
musical company he kept than in connection with his own music.
From a date around 1690 he was employed as one of the chamber
musicians to Louis XIV. As well as playing the guitar at the king’s
bedside of an evening, he played his part in the ensemble music
making which, at one time or another, included such figures as
the viol player Antoine Forqueray, the violinist Jean-François
Rebel, the harpsichordists François Couperin and Jean-Baptiste
Buterne, as well as the flautists René-Pignon Descoteaux and Philibert
Rebille – who said that the idea of the supergroup
was a new one!
Almost 200 pieces
of de Viseé’s work survive, written for lute, guitar or theorbo,
alongside his arrangements (for these instruments) of music
by Couperin, Marin Marais, Forqueray and Jean Baptiste Lully.
This present recital, played by Fred Jacobs on a French Theorbo
made by Michael Lowe in 2004 and equipped with gut strings,
includes both original pieces and arrangements from Lully. In
making arrangements from the ballets and operas of Lully, Visée
and others anticipated the nineteenth century vogue for piano
transcriptions of operatic highlights.
Of the Lully transcriptions
played by Jacobs, the ‘Entrée d’Apollon’ from Le Triomphe
de l’Amour is particularly fine, stately but not pompous,
evocative of a grandeur that seems more than merely human, unfussy
in a way that suggests a grand disdain - on the part of the
music’s subject, as much as its composer - for the pointlessly
decorative. ‘Assez des pleurs’ (from Bellerophon) has
a different kind of dignity, a persuasive balance of compassion
and stoic refusal to give way to mere emotion.
Robert de Visée’s
original work is represented by three suites, and a single,
detached piece, a genuinely moving tombeau occasioned by the
death of his daughters - how many of them there were, and how
they died doesn’t seem to be known. Characteristically, it avoids
all self-indulgence while being obviously genuine and profound
in its emotions. De Visée’s published work contain twelve suites.
These include a number of very finely tempered allemandes -
of which one, ‘La Royalle’ was a particular favourite with the
king - and sarabandes, as well as some relatively sprightly
gavottes. But the dominant air is of sobriety rather than gaiety,
of dignity and near-melancholy. There is little frivolity to
be found here, but much pleasure of a refined and intelligent
When heard on the
modern guitar, de Visée’s work carries an altogether different,
and generally lesser, charge than it has here. Jacobs’ playing
is masterly and his sense of the appropriate idiom thoroughly
internalised; the instrument on which he plays has a gorgeous,
and thoroughly appropriate, weight of sound, especially at the
bottom end; the recorded sound is exemplary.
This will appeal
strongly to all with an interest in the French baroque. Those
who love the work of the Renaissance lute composers will probably
also find much to reward their minds and ears too.