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Sonatas for Two Violins
Louis-Gabriel GUILLEMAIN (1705-1770)
Sonata in d minor, op. 4,2 [15:10]
Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764)
Sonata in B flat, op. 12,6 [15:15]
Jean-Pierre GUIGNON (1702-1774)
Les Sauvages [op. 8] [4:27]
Tendrement [op. 8] [2:44]
La Fustemberg [op. 8] [5:56]
Nouvelles variations des Folies d'Espagne [op. 9] [8:56]
Étienne MANGEAN (c1710-c1756)
Sonata in g minor, op. 3,6 [10:35]
Johannes Pramsohler, Rondán Bernabé (violins)
rec. 2017, Gustav-Mahler-Saal, Toblach/Dobbiaco, Italy
AUDAX RECORDS ADX13714 [63:04]

There is no lack of recordings of music for one or two instruments with basso continuo. In comparison, discs with music for two treble instruments without basso continuo are rare. That is all the more surprising as such music was quite popular in the first half of the 18th century, when music-making in private homes and at social gatherings became increasingly popular among the higher echelons of society. Several composers, such as Michel de La Barre, wrote music for two transverse flutes, which reflects the popularity of the flute among amateurs. The violin was probably less frequently played, but Johannes Pramsohler, in the liner-notes to the present disc, mentions that in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris one can find well over twenty printed collections of duo settings for two violins.

In this case, some music may be well beyond the capabilities of amateurs. That goes for instance for the Sonata in g minor by Étienne Mangean, one of the little-known composers from the first half of the 18th century, who first worked in Dijon and later moved to Paris, where he played in several orchestras and performed as a soloist at the Concert Spirituel. In the sonata included here, he explores the high positions of the violin and makes use of double stopping. It is interesting that Pramsohler makes mention of performances of duos for two violins by professional players: Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville and Jean-Pierre Guignon. They were among the most famous violinists of their time, and considering the natural rivalry between professional musicians at the time, this cooperation was quite remarkable. However, the partnership in concerts was probably not of a personal nature, but rather professional. "Appointed Royal maitre des ménétriers by the king, Guignon apparently attempted to give this pro forma position the appearance of authority and influence by dismissing Mondonville as the music teacher to the dauphin." Pramsohler adds: "Friendship was not a very pronounced trait among the eminent French violinists." This may well explain why there is not that much music which is only playable by professional performers.

However, music for amateurs was not necessarily easy. Amateurs in those days were often quite skilled, and one may assume that composers wrote duets, like those recorded here, to be played by themselves, together with one of their gifted pupils. The Second livre de sonates à deux violons op. 12 by Jean-Marie Leclair, which dates from the late 1740s, was dedicated to the wealthy amateurs who studied with him. These sonatas are technically demanding and include runs and double stopping. Leclair's music shows the influence of the Italian style, and is dominated by counterpoint. In the Sonata in B flat that comes particularly to the fore in the first two movements. In the opening allegro, the two violins are largely independent, although the second violin regularly imitates the first. The second movement is a fugue. In the andante, Leclair explores the harmonic possibilities of playing on two violins.

The pieces by Guignon are clearly inspired by music which was popular in his time. Jean-Pierre Guignon, whose original name was Giovanni Pietro Guignone, was born in Turin, where lived the famous violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Somis, who became his teacher. Somis also was the teacher of Leclair, and it is not impossible that the two have met there. Guignone settled in Paris in 1725, and took the name of Guignon. He played at the Concert Spirituel and was introduced to the court. His compositional oeuvre includes a respectable number of chamber music works. Les Sauvages, Tendrement and La Fustemberg are taken from a collection with variations for two violins on pieces by various composers, printed around 1746, which was dedicated to Madame Adélaïde, as one of the daughters of Louis XV was called. Les Sauvages is an arrangement of a harpsichord piece by Rameau, La Fustemberg refers to a folk song, which has become known through Michel Corrette's arrangement, included in one of his concertos comiques. A little later, Guignon published a collection of variations on various airs, among them one of the most popular tunes of the baroque era, Folies d'Espagne, originally a Portuguese dance.

The programme opens with the Sonata in d minor by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, one of the most brilliant violinists of his time. Like Leclair and Guignon, he was a pupil of Somis. He made a career as a violinist from an early age. In 1737 he was appointed ordinaire de la musique du roy, possibly as a successor to Leclair. He soon became the highest-paid musician at the court. His skills as a performer manifest themselves in this technically challenging piece in three movements. The opening allegro includes double stopping and passages which require staccato playing. The second movement is in purely Italian style, and in the third we hear several episodes in which the violins play in parallel motion.

As recordings of baroque duets for violins are relatively rare, this disc is a major addition to the discography, and for that reason alone it deserves a strong recommendation. That is further supported by the quality of the music and the level of music making. Johannes Pramsohler and Roldán Bernabé are brilliant violinists, who perform these pieces with stunning ease. The ensemble is immaculate, and the artists play with great rhythmic precision and a fine dynamic shading.

If you love baroque violin music, this is a disc to treasure. It is a strong candidate for my list of Recordings of the Year.

Johan van Veen

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