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The Mad Lover
Théotime Langlois de Swarte (violin)
Thomas Dunford (lute)
rec. 2019, Église Protestante Allemande, Paris, France
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with PDF booklet from
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902305 [80:24]

The Restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660 was not only a political turning point, but it also resulted in a stylistic 'modernization' of the music scene. Charles II, returning from his exile in France, wished to copy the splendour of Louis XIV's court, and founded the 24 violins. They should play the kind of repertoire which was common on the continent, instead of the traditional English consort music. Whereas in the first years after the Restoration, the new music was mainly French in style, the arrival of Nicola Matteis made English audiences acquainted with the modern trends in Italian music, and this was quickly adopted across the country, and paved the way for the Corellimania which was to get England in its grip around 1700.

The instrument that was especially connected to the Italian style was the violin. It was known in England: John Jenkins was one of its exponents. However, when the German Thomas Baltzar and the Italian Nicola Matteis arrived in England (in 1655 and 1670 respectively), they caused a sensation by playing the violin in an entirely different way. At first, it was almost exclusively played by professionals, and even they had to get used to the Italian way of playing. One of the features of Matteis's playing was double stopping, a technique which was not employed by English composers. This may explain why Matteis in the third and fourth volumes of his Ayres for the Violin marked the double stops in hollow dotted notation indicating that they could be left out by less advanced players.

The disc under review here offers a wide variety of pieces for the violin which gives a good idea of how violin playing developed in the decades after Matteis's settlement in England. Théotime Langlois de Swarte states in his notes in the booklet that two things inspired him for this recording. The first was his discovery of a Ground by John Eccles which so fascinated him that the basso ostinato became one of the keys in the programme. It opens and closes with grounds by Eccles and there are also pieces on a ground bass by Nicola Matteis and by John Eccles's brother Henry.

The second source of inspiration was the Eccles family itself. "Henry Eccles' Sonata in G minor delivered quite a thunderbolt, and became the trigger for the entire programme: 'The Mad Lover' of the album title could be the story of an itinerant violinist from the composer's own time who roamed city streets and courtyards in the company of a lute player, pausing to play pieces familiar to the bystanders, such as preludes by Purcell and Matteis, or sonatas, 'grounds' and various 'folias'...I conceived this programme as an overview of the music that could be heard in London at the turn of the 18th century (...)".

The solo sonatas for violin and basso continuo by Daniel Purcell - probably a cousin of Henry - and by Henry Eccles document the dissemination of violin playing. At the time Eccles' sonatas were published (1720), the violin must have found its way among amateurs, as the printing of music for a relatively small number of professionals would make little sense. Another token of this development is the publication of The Division Violin by John Playford in 1684. As this collection included also pieces by Thomas Baltzar, alongside simpler pieces based on popular tunes, this collection was undoubtedly intended for both professionals and amateurs.

The concept of an itinerant violinist explains why the basso continuo is performed on the lute, and also why the programme includes several items for violin alone, without any accompaniment. These pieces are among the most rare as they are seldom played. I can't remember having ever heard Purcell's Prelude in G minor. It has to be said, though, that it was included in an edition published by John Walsh, the notoriously unscrupulous music printer, and that New Grove mentions the recorder as an alternative (in the key of D minor). We cannot be sure that it was originally intended for the violin. That was certainly the case with the pieces by Matteis, although even he recognized the popularity of the recorder, as his third and fourth volumes of Ayres were also made available for this instrument.

Matteis's son, also called Nicola, was a violin virtuoso like his father. He was a successful performer in London in the late 1700s, but soon moved to Vienna, where he focussed on the composition of ballet music. Only two pieces from his pen were published in London, and both are included here.

In recent times the music of Matteis has received quite some interest. I refer here to a disc by Veronika Skuplik (violin) and Andreas Arend (archlute) ("Silk & Tweed"; fra bernardo, 2020) and the one by Alice Julien-Laferrière (violin) and the ensemble Ground Floor ("'Il genio inglese' - Matteis, a Neapolitan in London"; Harmonia mundi, 2020). There are also some recordings of violin music by English-born composers, but overall this kind of repertoire does not receive the interest it deserves. The track-list does not indicate which pieces appear here on disc for the first time, but I am sure that some items have never been recorded before. The two artists have done a fine job putting together this compelling programme, and their approach to the repertoire is quite original. The playing is excellent, and in fact much better than I have heard in previous recordings of English violin music, which I often found too harmless and a bit bland. Théotime Langlois de Swarte has found the perfect middle way: he avoids a too 'Italian' style of playing, but at the same time there is a good differentiation in tempo and dynamics. In some slow movements he delivers wonderfully subtle performances. Thomas Dunford is his congenial partner, with imaginative accompaniments, and nice improvisation.

Johan van Veen

John ECCLES (c1668-1735)
Ground (The Mad Lover suite, Aire V) [3:41]
Daniel PURCELL (c1664-1717)
Sonata sesta [6:26]
Improvisation [5:34]
Nicola MATTEIS (c1650-c1714)
Variations on La Folia (Division on a Ground) [5:15]
Nicola MATTEIS the Younger (late 1670s-1737)
Fantasia in a minor [4:05]
Suite in A minor:
Sarabanda amorosa [2:28]
Diverse bizzarie sopra la vecchia sarabanda o pur Ciacona [5:08]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Prelude in G minor (ZN 773) [1:44]
Henry ECCLES (c1680-c1740)
Sonata undecima in G minor [8:11]
Suite in G [12:18]
Sonata quinta in E minor [13:39]
Nicola MATTEIS the Younger
Fantasia in C minor 'con discretione' [4:47]
A new division upon the ground bass of John come and kiss me [4:51]
Ground (The Mad Lover suite, Aire III) [2:01]

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