"The instruments to which one was most attached at this time in Paris, were the harpsichord and the transverse or German flute. The French play these instruments today with an unequalled delicacy", the German writer Joachim Christoph Nemeitz wrote in 1727.
The flute was a rival of the violin, and those French music lovers who resisted the growing influence of the Italian style - of which the violin was a representative - preferred it as it was better able to imitate the human voice. Several renowned flautists were active on the music scene, like Michel Blavet and Michel De La Barre. Michel Pignolet de Montéclair was not one of them - he may have written various pieces for the flute, he himself was not a flautist.
He was born as Michel Pignolet in Andelot in the Haute-Marne, and started his musical career as a choirboy in Langres cathedral. In 1687 he moved to Paris where in a tax register of 1695 he is described as "dancing and instrumental teacher of the third class". Here he added 'Montéclair' to his name, after a Gallo-Roman site on the hill of Montéclair in Andelot-Blancheville. He published various collections of airs for one and two voices and basso continuo. At the end of the century he was in the service of Charles-Henri de Lorraine Vaudémont, Prince of Commercy and Governor of Milan. He probably spent several years in Milan, and this could explain the introduction of the Italian double-bass to the orchestra of the Opéra in which he played the basse de violon from 1699 onwards.
As a composer he was quite active: he not only composed chamber music, but also sacred works and music for the theatre, including a tragédie-lyrique on a sacred subject, Jephté. A number of his compositions have been lost. Moreover he was a renowned teacher: among his pupils was François Couperin's daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Montéclair published various treatises on musical subjects and got involved in a debate with Jean-Philippe Rameau. Today the best-known part of his oeuvre are his chamber cantatas. A recent recording of five of these cantatas was reviewed here.
Montéclair composed several pieces for flute, among them six concertos for flute and basso continuo. The six concertos for two flutes without a bass which are the sibject of this two-disc set belong to a category which was very popular at the time. It was already in the previous century that Jean - or Sieur - de Sainte-Colombe wrote his Concerts à deux violes esgales. Marin Marais also indicated that some of his music for two viols could be played without a basso continuo. In 1709 Michel De La Barre had published his first Suite for two flutes, which was followed by eleven further books with music for this combination. Montéclair's Concertos date from 1723, and he added that they also could be played on violins and viols. Even so, it is quite clear that they were written with the flute in mind. The fashion of the day was gallant and refined conversation, and these concertos perfectly fit in this aesthetic ideal.
These are actually suites with a number of movements varying from eight to twelve. They comprise the conventional dances, like menuet, gavotte, courante, gigue and sarabande, but also various character pieces which were frequently included in harpsichord suites of the time. Examples are Badinage (pleasantry), Le Papillon (the butterfly) and Le Moucheron (the little fly). The most brilliant character piece is Les Ramages which imitates the songs of various birds. The pair of muzettes in the 3e Concert imitate the musette, a very popular instrument at the time, referring to the countryside. Part of the imitation is the largely legato playing, in contrast to most other movements. The next piece in this suite is also interesting: it is a pair of sarabandes, the first of which has the indication gay (cheerful), the second lentement (slow). As the sarabande is a slow dance in itself, the contrast between the two is quite remarkable. The 2e Concert has two courantes, the first in the French, the second in the Italian manner. The former is elegant and refined, the latter more lively and theatrical, with pronounced accents. These two dances are followed by a highly expressive Plainte en Dialogue which includes some strong dissonances. Other suites also contain contrasts between French and Italian movements.
Some of this music has been recorded before, but this is the first complete recording of the set, and the first which these two artists have made together. They couldn't have made a better start. This is first-class music which perfectly reflects the fashion in French musical life in the first quarter of the 18th century. Refined and gallant this music may be, it is definitely not without expressive content, and - as I have indicated above - these concertos offer quite a lot of variety. The two flautists have caught the character of this music perfectly. Their playing is delicate and refined when needed, but they can also be strong and forceful. The melancholic and the more cheerful pieces come off equally well. The performance of Les Ramages is one of the highlights.
Lovers of flute music won't hesitate to purchase this set. Everyone who likes good music will enjoy this recording. Very fine music, exquisite performances - what more do you want?
Johan van Veen