‘Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: chamber music from the Brossard Collection’ reviewed on MusicWeb International

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Johan van Veen reviewed our CD ‘Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: chamber music from the Brossard Collection’ for MusicWeb International. He writes as follows:

François Couperin is generally considered one of the first French composers to write in the Italian style. However, when he composed his first trio sonatas in 1692, the climate in France was such that he had to hide his identity. When he later included the trio sonatas in his edition of Les Nations, he referred to these circumstances in his preface. ‘Delighted by the sonatas of Signor Corelli, whose work I shall enjoy as long as I live, as also the work of Monsieur de Lulli, I risked composing one which was played in the place where I had heard those of Corelli. Knowing French harshness towards foreign innovations of any type, and not too confident in myself, I did myself a good service by slight prevarication. I pretended that a relative, who exists in fact, in the service of the king of Sardinia, had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. The signature was my own name with the letters rearranged so as to form an Italian name’.

He was not the only composer who felt attracted to the Italian style. Another one was Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, by any account a remarkable figure in music history. Born as Elisabeth Jacquet (La Guerre being the name of her later husband) within a family of musicians and instrument makers, she was educated as a harpsichord player and a singer, and in these capacities she performed at the court for Louis XIV at a very young age. The king was so impressed that from then onwards she enjoyed his protection, which she reciprocated by dedicating almost all her compositions to him.

But what is even more remarkable is the fact that she presented herself as a composer, not only of the kind of music she has become famous for – harpsichord pieces and chamber music -, but also of music for the theatre. In about 1691 she composed a ballet, which has been lost. Céphale et Procris, a tragédie lyrique, was first performed in 1694, but was rather negatively received. It was the last dramatic music she wrote and from then onwards she concentrated on writing sonatas.

As far as her chamber music is concerned, most attention has been given to the Sonates pour le Viollon et pour le Clavecin which were published in 1707, but composed much earlier. By comparison, the sonatas which are the subject of the present disc are not that well known. The booklet does not claim that they appear on disc here for the first time, and I have heard a couple of them before, but if all of them are available on CD I have never encountered them. This is my first acquaintance with most of them, and it is a most pleasant experience.

The work-list in New Grove mentions two sets of sonatas which have been preserved in manuscript: four trio sonatas and two sonatas for violin and basso continuo. These are the pieces recorded here. Couperin, in the quotation above, specifically refers to the sonatas of Corelli, and Graham Sadler, in his liner-notes, also mentions the arrival of the editions of his trio sonatas Opp. 1 and 2 as a landmark, quoting Michel Corrette (1753). Taking this into account, it is remarkable that Jacquet de La Guerre is very much independent of his model. The two solo sonatas are formally divided into movements. That is also a feature of Corelli’s sonatas, but Jacquet de La Guerre does not follow his example slavishly, neither in the number of movements nor in the order of tempi. Even more remarkable is that the second movement of the Sonata IIa in a minor includes an episode with double stopping. That was highly unusual at a time when playing technique in France was not that well-developed, since the violin was still little more than an instrument in the opera orchestra and its role as a solo instrument was largely confined to dance music. This may well be the first time that the technique of double stopping was used in France.

The tracklist does not specify the movements of the trio sonatas. However, these are hardly formally separated. Despite the influence of Corelli, they often reminded me of the pre-Corellian sonatas, written in the stylus phantasticus. Sonatas in this style, as written in Italy, but also in Germany – the sonatas of Buxtehude are good examples – comprise a sequence of movements or sections of a contrasting character and often follow each other attacca. That is also the case here. Whereas in the sonatas of the 1707 edition Jacquet de La Guerre mixes French and Italian influences, these trio sonatas are almost purely Italian in style. Listen to the opening of the Trio sonata in c minor: its pathetical character, emphasized by the short general pauses, is every inch Italian. The third section includes some harmonic tension, a feature we also meet in other sonatas.

There is another aspect which needs to be mentioned: the role of the string bass. Whereas in many sonatas from the baroque era the line-up in the basso continuo is left to the performers, and instruments such as cello, viola da gamba or violone can be added but can also be omitted, here it is necessary to include a string bass. It is not without reason that it is specifically mentioned in the titles of some sonatas by French composers, and apparently also in Jacquet de La Guerre’s sonatas. These pieces in manuscript have come down to us in copies made by Sébastien de Brossard, himself a strong admirer of the Italian style. The booklet includes a picture of the first page of the violin part of the Trio Sonata in B flat. It says: Sonata IIa a 2 vv e violoncello. It is not only notable that the string bass is specifically mentioned, but also that it is called violoncello. This must be one of the first pieces by a French composer to mention the cello, an instrument generally considered typically Italian. Unfortunately, this is not discussed in the liner-notes, and the performers decided to use the viola da gamba as string bass. Considering that at the time of composing the cello was hardly played in France, this seems the most obvious option. In several movements the string bass differs from the basso continuo and plays an obbligato role.

From this description one may conclude that this is a highly important disc. It sheds light on a little-known part of Jacquet de La Guerre’s output, and a part of highly quality at that. These sonatas confirm that she was a first-class composer, not only of music for harpsichord, but also of chamber music. The Italian character of these sonatas is quite surprising and adds something substantial to our knowledge of this period in French music history.

These sonatas have found enthusiastic advocates in The Bach Players. These performances would be hard to surpass. They are technically impressive, but (more importantly) the sonatas are played with imagination and panache, excellently phrased and articulated, and with a good sense of rhythm and dynamic differentation. This is rhetorical playing in the best sense of the word. It was a nice idea to include preludes from the harpsichord suites, some sensibly used as introduction to the sonatas. Silas Wollston does well in realising the préludes non mesurés.

MusicWeb International

and also Johan van Veen’s Musica Dei donum