Leclair violin RIC431
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Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)
Violin Sonatas
Sonata in G minor, op. 2,12 [Book II]
Sonata in B flat, op. 5,4 [Book III]
Sonata in C, op. 5,10 [Book III]
Sonata in A minor, op. 9,5 [Book IV]
Sonata in G, op. 5,10 [Book III]
David Plantier (violin), Les Plaisirs du Parnasse
rec. 2021, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, France
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with PDF booklet from Outhere

One of the features of music life in 17th-century Europe was the antagonism between the Italian and the French style. This manifested itself most prominently in opera, but it also made itself felt in the field of instrumental music. Instruments that took a central place in French music life, such as several wind instruments and the viola da gamba, played a marginal role in Italy or were not even known. In the case of the violin, it was the other way round: it played a key role in Italy, but in France it was only used in ensemble and in opera. Apart from the fact that the French did not like Italian music very much, there were no violinists who had the technical skills to play Italian music. The first violinist who is assumed to have been able to play double stops, was François Duval (1672/73-1728). He was also the first who published a collection of sonatas for violin and basso continuo; that was in 1704. More than two dozen sets of violin sonatas were printed in France until Jean-Marie Leclair published his first book of sonatas (1723).

Leclair was educated as a dancer and a violinist, and for some time acted in both capacities. His contact with the Italian violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Somis, pupil of Arcangelo Corelli, was a key moment in his career. He decided to concentrate on playing the violin and writing for his own instrument. Leclair composed some music for the theatre - which is lost, except his opera Scylla et Glaucus - but otherwise his oeuvre comprises exclusively music for violin. Between 1723 and 1743 he published four books with sonatas for violin and basso continuo which show an increasing amount of virtuosity. The later books reflect the development in his skills as a violinist and the influence of his teacher Somis and - more generally - the Italian style. These, and the two sets of violin concertos were probably written for his own use in the first place. Most of them seem too complicated for amateurs.

Leclair could take advantage of the fact that during the first decades of the 18th century the French had gradually overcome their dislike of the Italian style. Music by Italian composers was played at the Concert Spirituel; Vivaldi was one of the most popular composers. French composers also embraced the Italian style, and Leclair was one of its most prominent exponents. However, he warned against those things that were considered typically Italian. In several prefaces he warned against exaggeration with regard to tempo and ornamentation. In the preface to his fourth book of violin sonatas, he wrote: "All those who wish to succeed in playing these works according to the taste of the author must strive to find the character of each piece, as well as the right tempo and tone colour that suit the different pieces. An important point, which cannot be overemphasized, is to avoid the jumble of notes that are added to the melodic and expressive passages but which serve only to desfigure them." And in the preface to his Sonates en trio op. 12, he stated: “By an Allegro I do not mean a movement that is too fast, but a cheerful one. Those who hurry too much, especially in character pieces ... make the music banal instead of preserving its noblesse."

David Plantier, in his liner-notes to the present disc, states that "Leclair’s almost impossible mission was to reconcile the irreconcilable: to combine French elegance and refinement with Italian ardour and virtuosity." Both elements are present in the five sonatas he selected for this recording. The titles of most movements are in Italian, but they often hide a dance. The Sonata in A minor from Book IV closes with an allegro ma non tropo, which is in fact a gavotte en rondeau. The form of the rondeau was very popular at the time. The Sonata in G minor from Book II includes an aria gratioso which is split into two sections, again according to the rondeau principle. The Sonata in C from Book III ends with a tambourin, with the tempo indication presto. It is a character piece of a folkloristic nature, such as a drone in the bass, which is quite ostentatious, and something one would not expect in French music. It reminds me of the way Telemann included folkloristic elements in his compositions.

Leclair's Italian leanings come to the fore in his frequent use of double stopping. It is a fixed element in his violin concertos, which were intended for professionals, but also frequently turns up in the sonatas, such as the Sonata in g minor from Book II and the Sonata in G from Book III. The Sonatas in B flat and in G minor from Book III both end with a ciaconna. The chaconne was a fixed part of French music, such as opera, but also chamber music, but these two pieces are strongly Italian in character. The latter is particularly challenging from a technical point of view. The most virtuosic sonata in this programme is the one in A minor from Book IV. According to Plantier "the fourth (book) demonstrates an extraordinary range of experimentation that foreshadows Leclair's later innovations." About this sonata he writes: "The amplitude of the first Andante, a grand romantic fresco, is surprising: its unchanging bass in repeated crotchets contrasts with the eloquence of the violin as it explores every emotion in the manner of a great operatic aria. The Allegro assai is a tribute to Italian virtuosity, with its incessant and perilous bariolage passages, whilst the tormented central adagio must surely have touched the hearts of the listeners of the time." The closing allegro ma non tropo works as a kind of relaxation, thanks to its playful character.

As mentioned above, Leclair's music may include strong Italian traits, but one should not ignore his warnings against a way of playing that is too Italian. Plantier is well aware of this and avoids too much ornamentation, and applies it mostly in the movements of an Italian character. His performances are differentiated, also with regard to tempo and dynamics. He is an outstanding performer, who earlier made a great impression with a recording of sonatas by Tartini. In fact, there are quite some similarities between the two composers. The only issue in this recording is the role of the double bass. "We also wished to underline the orchestral dimension of certain pieces by adding a sixteen-foot instrument, the double bass, which gives an extra amplitude to this extraordinary music." I am not convinced that this is in line with Leclair's intentions.

It hardly matters as far as the final verdict on this recording is concerned. I love Leclair's music and I have greatly enjoyed these performances. They are an ideal introduction to the oeuvre of Leclair, also thanks to the selection of sonatas from three books. Even if you have a number of discs with Leclair's sonatas in your collection, this is one you should not miss.

Johan van Veen