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ClassicsOnline Home » LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 2, Nos. 6, 7, 9-12 (Butterfield, Manson, Cummings)
Five years after the publication of his first book of sonatas, Jean-Marie Leclair, the great exponent of the emerging French violin school, released his second book. He had continued to be influenced by the lyricism and virtuosity of Italian models but, concerned that the technical demands of his writing might prove excessive, ensured that a handful could be played either on the flute or the violin. Yet he continued to make considerable advances and the level of melodic invention and expressive intensity remained untouched, the result of a fusion of Italianate fire and French elegance. Together with Naxos 8.572866 this is the first complete recording of Leclair’s Op 2 Sonatas.
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764)
Violin Sonatas • Book 2: Nos 6–7 and 9–12
“The publicʼs 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.
The B flat major Seventh Sonata is relaxed in character, opening with a lyrical movement which takes us on one of those musical journeys that repeatedly but gently surprises us. The third movement, despite its Allegro ma non troppo marking, is really a flowing slow movement and is unusual because Leclair writes alternate markings of Fièrement and Tendrement to delineate his contrasting musical ideas.
Sonata No 6 in D major is another virtuoso showpiece, this time in just three movements. For the first time there is a slow introduction to the first movement which is somewhat similar to the beginning of Corelli’s first sonata in the same key. The first Allegro is characterised by passages that leap across the strings whilst the last is full of folk-style drone figures and passages in thirds. In between is a wistful Largo in the relative minor.
Sonata No 9 is also a virtuoso work, this time in the bright, open-string key of E major. The opening Adagio once again reminds us of Corelli. Leclair has written out some Corelli-like ornamental flourishes to which I have added some of my own on the repeats, always bearing in mind Leclair’s strongly-held opinion: “An important point, on which one cannot lay too much stress, is to avoid the confusion of notes that are sometimes added to melodic and expressive passages, and which serve only to disfigure them”. The last movement is another tour de force of double-stoppings and bariolage with a rondeau theme that bears quite a strong resemblance to Handel’s La Réjouissance from his Music for the Royal Fireworks composed twenty years later. Could it be that Handel heard this piece performed?
The Tenth Sonata is in C minor and has just three movements in a slow-fast-fast arrangement. The first two movements in particular have a seriousness and intensity of mood that has been largely absent from the set so far. The Vivace second movement’s sequential writing is reminiscent of Vivaldi and it has an unusual feature in that many of the musical ideas presented in the first half do not appear in the second and are replaced by quite different material. The last movement is also Italianate in character and has some moments of lightheartedness that provide good contrast to the energetic opening theme.
Sonata No 11 in B minor is also in three movements and this is the fifth and final one that can be played on the flute. The first movement is gentle in expression with more of the surprising twists and turns mentioned earlier. The second movement has more energy but is more defined by the lingering tension created by the canonic writing between treble and bass and the concluding rondeau returns to the subtle, understated expression of the opening Adagio.
The last sonata of the set is another minor-key work but it has a more imposing character than the previous two and this is evident from the first phrase in which treble and bass lines pull away from each other in contrary motion. The fugue that follows has a power and grandeur that is reminiscent of Bach’s G minor solo violin Fugue which shares the same key and whose fugue subject bears a passing resemblance to this one. The third movement is a beautiful double rondeau, the second one in the tonic major, whilst the finale concludes with a wild romp that is folky in style and brings the set to an exciting conclusion.
Adrian Butterfield, 2013
Adrian Butterfield plays a baroque violin by David Rubio, 1996, after Guarnerius del Gesù, ‘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.
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LECLAIR, J.-M.: Violin Sonatas, Op. 2, Nos. 6, 7, ...