ClassicsOnline Home » LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 2, Nos. 1-5, 8 (Butterfield, Manson, Cummings)
The joys of Jean-Marie Leclair’s Violin Sonatas Op 2, published in 1728, five years after his first book of sonatas, can be found in the beauty of their melodic invention, and their expressive and surprising harmonies. Leclair takes us on unexpected journeys of landscape and scenery in his slow movements and excites with Italian energy and fire in the fast. Adrian Butterfield’s three Naxos volumes of Leclair’s Violin Sonatas, Op 1 were acclaimed as being “shaped by exquisite phrasing and studded with lovely Italianate ornamentation…so much to savour”. (Gramophone on 8.570890)
By Robin Stowell
By Julie Anne Sadie
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764)
Violin Sonatas • Book 2: Nos 1–5 and 8
“The public’s favourable reception of my first book makes me hope that this book will not be received less favourably. To assure this success, I was careful to compose these sonatas for moderately-skilled persons.”
Leclair was born in Lyon, the son of a lacemaker, and though he was brought up with his father’s trade he also studied dancing and the violin. In acquiring these latter two skills together he was following the French dancing-master tradition but the years he spent in Italy inspired him to write music that brought about that fusion of the French and Italian styles, les goûts réunis, that was such an important aspiration of the age in which he lived.
In 1723 he came to Paris where he was fortunate to come under the patronage of one of the wealthiest men in the city, Joseph Bonnier, and this enabled him to publish his first book of violin sonatas, a publication which was received with great admiration. Leclair, however, felt that he had more to learn and Quantz tells us that in 1726 he was studying in Turin with Somis. Subsequent encounters with other virtuosi, in particular Locatelli, heavily influenced his development as both performer and composer and it is notable how much more technically adventurous his third (1734) and fourth (1743) books are. This, however, has had the unfortunate effect of the almost complete neglect of his first two books by violinists and this is a great pity because they contain such a marvellous synthesis of Italian lyricism and French elegance.
Leclair’s second book of sonatas was published in 1728, five years after his first. His first wife had engraved Book 1 but she had died by this time and the new engraver was Louise Catherine Roussel whom he married in 1730. His new patron was M. Bonnier de la Mosson, the son of Joseph Bonnier who had supported his first book and who had also since died.
It seems that at the time of publication the composer was concerned that the increased level of technical difficulty of some of his violin writing, influenced no doubt by his return to Turin in the intervening years to study with Giovanni Battista Somis, might be off-putting to some of his subscribers. Having included only two sonatas that could be played on the flute in Book 1, in this new volume five sonatas are designated in this way. Since double-stopping and chordal writing had to be omitted from these pieces this meant that there were a good number of movements that were much less daunting in terms of technique.
On the other hand, in some of the violin-only sonatas there are a number of very challenging moments which are a significant step up from Book 1. Fontenai, in his Dictionnaire des Artistes (1776), writes: “All the richness…used in the second book was due to the practice of using two strings”. It has been suggested by some scholars that Leclair’s style developed little over his lifetime but it seems clear that there had been significant developments in terms of technique since Book 1; some movements contain extensive use of double-stopping, high positions and bariolage as well as rapid staccato bowings. And harmonically, too, he had become more adventurous with some surprising twists and turns and extensive use of augmented-sixth and Neapolitan chords. The imposing figure of Corelli still appears in the background but his presence is much more distant and Leclair’s own musical personality has become more developed. The composer seems to have been successful in not frightening away the public, as contemporary popularity of this second book is clear from the fact that it appeared in at least three editions. Leclair’s highly successful appearances at the Concerts spirituels in Paris from 1728 must have helped sales too.
The joys of this set can be found in the beauty of Leclair’s melodic invention and in the expressive imagination of his harmonies. So often in the slow movements he surprises the listener by avoiding obvious cadences, not so much with the intention of shocking us but more as though taking us on a journey and gently guiding us round corners that we hadn’t seen coming and amazing us with unexpected landscapes and scenery. There is no shortage of Italianate energy and fire in the fast movements but this is never exaggerated and Leclair’s French sensibility means that an underlying elegance and refinement is rarely far away.
In Book 1 he gave us no instructions as to which instrument or instruments should play the continuo, though it can be deduced from the range and style of the writing that a viola da gamba player was expected to partner a harpsichordist. In Book 2, however, he does give us some information about one sonata; the title of No 8 is ‘Sonata à Trois, avec un Violon ou Flûte Allemande, une Viele et Clavesin’ so here we actually have a trio sonata instead of a solo one. Interestingly, under the first notes of the bass line he writes ‘Clavesin ou Violonchel’ and yet there are a couple of moments when the music goes below the range of the cello.
Unfortunately, Leclair’s Book 2, like his Book 1, has been somewhat neglected in favour of Books 3 and 4 and this is its first complete recording. It is inevitable, I suppose, that when a composer writes a great number of compositions in one genre that his earlier examples receive less attention than the later ones. It is my hope, however, that this recording will do something to encourage violinists (and flautists) of many abilities to discover for themselves the joys of playing these wonderful works.
Sonata no 1, in E minor, opens rather starkly with a bass line that turns out to be a ground bass, a form that Leclair is using for the first time here. The third movement is a charming Sarabanda in the relative major and the finale is surprising in that for once a shift to the relative major half way through is not concluded with a brief return to the minore but ends with a gentle petite reprise in E major. It is also perhaps a surprise that this opening sonata should be one that is playable on the flute rather than one that immediately displays the composer’s violinistic development over the five-year gap after Book 1, but it shows how keen Leclair was to attract both flute players and violinists of lesser technical abilities.
Sonata No 2, on the other hand, is very much a virtuoso work for violin. The opening Adagio contains extensive double stopping, the Allegro that follows has difficult bowing patterns and trills and the third movement dramatic and sustained chords. But then the rondeau last movement takes us to a completely new level in terms of technique. The theme itself is presented almost entirely in thirds with double trills as well and the second interlude contains more thirds and a difficult passage of bariolage. The final interlude is continuous bariolage, the most difficult section of the whole set, though it is most ingeniously and idiomatically written for the instrument.
The C major Sonata No 3 is the second one designated for flute. Its opening Adagio is one of a number of slow movements in which Leclair delights in surprising us with his harmonic twists and turns. There is one progression that is a carbon copy of one in the first movement of Sonata No 9 in Book 1. The Largo, in the tonic minor, is a somewhat mournful Siciliano but the Corellian final Giga rounds this work off in a light-hearted mood.
Corelli comes to mind again at the beginning of Sonata No 4 whilst the third movement is a graceful rondeau with a theme in thirds which pre-echoes the slow movement of his Violin Concerto Op 7, No 6 in the same key. The finale has a folk element to it, something that features regularly in Book 1 and which often appears in this set too.
The Sonata No 5 is another flute one, in G major. It has been argued that Leclair’s inspiration was not at its strongest in these hybrid works but there is a glorious simplicity and subtlety of expression that contrasts beautifully with the fireworks elsewhere. The second movement, in fact, has its own technical challenge since all the triplet figures are marked with staccatos under one bow.
As has been mentioned earlier, the D major Sonata No 8 is actually a trio for violin or flute and viola da gamba. The gamba had several moments as a duetting partner to the violin in Book 1 but this is the first time that it takes that role in a complete sonata. All four movements have such a wonderful mix of intimacy, exuberance, melancholy and joyful energy and the dialogue between the two instruments ensures that this sonata has a particularly special atmosphere.
Adrian Butterfield 2013
Adrian Butterfield plays a baroque violin by David Rubio, 1996, after Guarnerius del Gesu, ‘Rode’, 1734 • Jonathan Manson plays a 7-string viola da gamba by Curtis Bryant, 1978, after Colichon • Laurence Cummings plays a harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, 2000, after Goujon, 1748.