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La Mascarade
Robert de VISÉE (ca. 1655-1732/3)

Prélude en ré mineur [1:15]
Passacaille en ré mineur [2:41]
Les Sylvains de Mr. Couperin [4:00]
Francesco CORBETTA (ca. 1615-1681)
Intro (Lislevand) [1:20]
Passaqcaille en sol mineur [2:38]
Robert de VISÉE
Prélude en la mineur [1:31]
La Mascarade, Rondeau [1:30]
Francesco CORBETTA
Partie de Chaconne en ut majeur [2:38]
Sarabanda per la B [2:20]
Robert de VISÉE
Chaconne en la mineur [2:40]
Francesco CORBETTA
Caprice de Chaconne [4:38]
Robert de VISÉE
Chaconne en sol majeur [6:57]
Francesco CORBETTA
Folie [1:56]
Robert de VISÉE
La Muzette, Rondeau [4:09]
Intro (Lislevand) [0:56]
Passacaille en si mineur [2:51]
Exit (Lislevand) [1:01]
Sarabanda en si mineur [3:27]
Rolf Lislevand (Baroque guitar, theorbo)
rec. April 2012, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2288 [48:29]

I’m already a big fan of Rolf Lislevand, having massively enjoyed his ECM albums Nuove musiche, and Diminuito. Unlike these semi crossover ensemble recordings, La Mascarade is Lislevand’s first solo recording for ECM, focusing on two composers from the court of Louis XIV: Robert de Visée and the Italian-born Francesco Corbetta. While having much of that improvisatory freshness of approach heard previously from Lislevand, these performances take into account what De Visée wrote about performance and are therefore scholarly as well as making for a very pleasant listen indeed: indeed, the booklet notes look into both teaching and learning about this music and its instruments in both contemporary and modern environments, and how close these seemingly disparate worlds can be.

The contrast between the two instruments used could hardly be greater. Where the Baroque guitar has no bass register the theorbo can be seen as a bass lute: “Together these instruments create a chiaroscuro in music, an image in sound of the Baroque theory of that magic tension that exists between light and darkness.” Lislevand opens with the deep thrum of the theorbo, balancing these darker textures against performances on the lighter and more silvery sounding Baroque guitar. This 17th century predecessor of the modern guitar is smaller in size, with five pairs of strings tuned in unisons and octaves. Lislevand’s reading of historical examples mean that he avoids inventing the wheel for a second time: “Musicians of four centuries ago had already developed the instrument’s playing style to explore all the possibilities of surprising strummed rhythms and harmonies, often very modern-sounding to our ears. Moreover the instrument’s many different tunings prefigure the experimental tunings used by improvising musicians today… It seems that guitar players of the seventeenth century did exactly what guitar players have done ever since: compose music with the guitar on their knees by listening to the exciting new sounds that unexpectedly occurred when they put their fingers on new and unusual places on the fingerboard.”

These composers are not such household names, but are key figures in the world of ‘early’ plucked string instruments. Francesco Corbetta came to attention as a virtuoso outside his native Italy, Lislevand telling us that he became the darling of the circle of Charles II in London, “and left a whole court strumming on small Baroque guitars.” Robert de Visée was a student of Corbetta at Versailles, going on to become one of the Sun King’s composers as well as his guitarist and theorbo player. Lislevand informs us that “de Visée played his own music at court, occasionally in the king’s bedroom, while the monarch was taking supper. On request he would play his guitar walking two steps behind the king during the daily royal promenade of the gardens of Versailles – the first Walkman in musical history.”

Interpretation of these pieces is highly personal, and Lislevand’s personality shines through every note. With regard to improvisation, Lislevand is very candid: “I only develop what the material implies, everything must be contained within the piece. Why then was it hidden until now? My usual reply is that we just change the proportions – a very Baroque technique.”

The results are gorgeous, developing tracts of fantasy in music that creates worlds of narrative. Take Francesco Corbetta’s Caprice de Chaconne that opens with a free extemporization over the chaconne chord progression. Played on the Baroque guitar, the notes come thick and fast, creating stunning arabesques while compensating for the instrument’s shorter sustain. Rhythm coalesces around the notes, and before we know it we are dancing in the corridors of Versailles, the notes spinning around our ears for a brief minute before further variations take us in a different direction – the earthly and the heavenly contrasting and combining in a piece that lasts less than five minutes. Sensitive programming puts this up against Robert de Visée’s Chaconne en sol majeur played on the theorbo, but starting on the upper strings so that there is the illusion of a seamless transition. The long strings of the theorbo allow the chaconne bass line to lay out its foundation over which melodic elaborations can take shape, working with the greater heft of the instrument but still with an energetic forward momentum and minor/major key changes that bring new energy each time.

In short, if you have relished Rolf Lislevand’s ensemble recordings but are a bit wary of an entire solo programme fear not – this recording has masses of contrast and content, and reveals more precious secrets the closer you listen. The recording is both detailed and blessed with Manfred Eicher’s plentiful resonance, an effect that suits this music perfectly to my ears – preserving every detail but giving a true sense of space and air which makes extended listening a delight.

Dominy Clements 



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