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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764)
Violin Sonatas Book 1, Nos.1-4 (1723)
Violin Sonata in C, Op.1/2 [15:04]
Violin Sonata in B-flat, Op.1/3 [14:15]
Violin Sonata in a minor, Op.1/1 [18:52]
Violin Sonata in D, Op.1/4 [16:04]
Adrian Butterfield (baroque violin); Alison McGillivray (viola da gamba); Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
rec. St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, 3-5 and 8-10 January 2008. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570888 [64:15]

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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764)
Violin Sonatas Book 1, Nos. 5-8 (1723)
Violin Sonata in A, Op.1/5 [9:17]
Violin Sonata in e minor, Op.1/6 [14:02]
Violin Sonata in F, Op.1/7 [14:52]
Violin Sonata in G, Op.1/8 [17:02]
Adrian Butterfield (baroque violin); Alison McGillivray (viola da gamba); Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
rec. St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, 3-5 and 8-10 January 2008. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570889 [55:14]
Experience Classicsonline


Leclair’s Op. 1 Sonatas were such a success when they were published in 1723 that the volume quickly had to be reprinted. He apparently studied the violin in Turin and rapidly became renowned for his technical expertise; these sonatas do place considerable demands on the performers, but they never indulge in virtuoso showing off for its own sake. All those on these two CDs follow the Corellian sonata da chiesa, four-movement type, apart from No.5, which is in three movements, and No.4 with its extra minuetto. The influence of Corelli is apparent but there is a considerable element of French elegance here, too, with emphasis on a cantabile, or singing line.

Some time ago I reviewed a Naxos 2-CD recording of Leclair’s Flute Sonatas which included alternative versions of two of the Opus 1 Sonatas now under consideration in their Violin Sonata guise. I found the music charming but a little too much of a sameness to enjoy other than in small doses. My colleague Carla Rees was much more taken with that set, making it Recording of the Month and deeming it unmissable - see her review.

The first work on the first of the new CDs, Op.1/2, also opens the earlier flute recording. The tempi on the new recording are faster than before, especially in the Gavotta third movement. I preferred the sound of the violin in this work - after all, Leclair is best known for his contribution to the development of the violin repertoire - but I also felt that the music benefited from being taken at a rather livelier pace.

I noted in my earlier review that the flute version of this sonata is taken slowly; though it never sounds too slow, I did find myself preferring the new version. Leclair cautioned players against playing his music too quickly, but even in the Gavotta the tempo adopted by Butterfield and partners is as grazioso as the marking indicates that it should be. The finale, too, marked Giga: Allegro, goes with a swing, but the speed is never excessive.

A degree of re-writing was necessary to fit Op.1/2 to the flute’s register; this, too, may partly explain my preference for the original violin format. I would never have described myself as sharing Mozart’s reputed dislike of the flute - a dislike which I find incredible when he wrote such beautiful music for the instrument, especially the Concerto for Flute and Harp - so I don’t think there’s some irrational and unconscious dislike of the instrument at play here.

The performances of the other three sonatas on the first of the new CDs are of the same high quality. I played the whole disc without any criticisms but with great enjoyment. Perhaps I was too dismissive in describing the chamber music with flute as superior background music. I certainly rate the new recording much higher than that.

Op.1/6, on the second CD, also features on the earlier flute recording. Whereas Op.1/2 had to be partially rewritten to fit the flute’s register, this sonata needed no rewriting, so direct comparison is possible. Once again, whether as a result of my preferring the violin in this music, or because the playing is more convincing, I enjoyed the work very much more than on that earlier occasion. If anything, the second CD sounds even more delightful than the first. If you buy only one of these CDs, make it the second - but then you’ll want the first, too.

In my earlier review I mentioned my preference for the viola da gamba in this music; apart from one work, the earlier recording employs the cello instead. Perhaps that, too, is a reason for my preferring the new CDs. Sonatas of this type can work well with just violin and harpsichord, as on the Naxos recording of Corelli’s Op.5/7-12 (see below) but the gamba is played with such sensitivity here that I didn’t find it at all intrusive. If I have a small reservation about the recording it concerns the comparative obscurity of the harpsichord, a complaint that I find myself making fairly frequently of modern recordings of baroque music.

There is (or was) a well-regarded recording of four of the Op.1 Sonatas on Astrée Naïve (E8662, François Fernandez, etc. in Nos.1, 3, 8 and 9), but I can’t find this listed any more. In any case, you’ll probably want more than just those four items.

If you followed my recommendation of an earlier Naxos recording, of Corelli’s Violin Sonatas, Op.5/7-12, on 8.557799 - see review - you will almost certainly like these two new CDs just as much. The performances, too, are of the same high quality as on that earlier recording, though by different performers. With good, bright recording, excellent notes by Adrian Butterfield, and Naxos’s usual well-chosen contemporary paintings on the front cover, these CDs should find a ready market.

The third volume of this series is due to appear soon; it’s already available from several dealers as I write and as a download from Naxos’s sister site, classicsonline.com. If I don’t receive the review copy of that, watch out for a review of the download in one of my future Download Roundups.

The quality of the music here may well inspire you to try out some of Leclair’s other music for violin. A good place to begin would be with Simon Standage’s recordings of the Violin Concertos (CHAN0551, 0564 and 0589) and Sonatas from Opp.3, 6 and 14 (CHAN0582) and Op.9 (CHAN0726), all on the Chandos Chaconne label. I recommend starting with the first of the three volumes of Violin Concertos (CHAN0551).

Here the model is Vivaldi rather than Corelli but these are more than mere imitations - and the pupil’s work proves almost as great as the master’s. If anything, the music is even more attractive than the Violin Sonatas and it receives first-rate performances from Simon Standage, soloist and director of Collegium Musicum 90. With excellent recording and presentation, you really ought to try this after the Sonatas, thereby extending by a further hour the two hours of pleasure that you’ll derive from the new Naxos CDs, which not only fill a niche in the market - a Naxos speciality - but do so delightfully.

Brian Wilson 

 


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