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  • Writer's pictureJohannes Pramsohler

Leclair's classical elegance

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

How Ensemble Diderot explored the marvellous sonic landscape of intensity and variety in Leclair's Op. 4

Photography © Edouard Brane

Jean-Marie Leclair's collection of Trio Sonatas Op. 4 represents a milestone of chamber music and a true masterpiece, which contemporaries already recognized. The German music theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg praised Leclair’s fugues in his Abhandlung von der Fuge (Essay on the Fugue) and reproduced two movements from op. 4 as examples alongside fugues by Bach, Kirnberger & Co.

Although Leclair largely dispensed with technical difficulties such as one finds in his solo sonatas, this is in no way a “musique d’une execution facile,” as he described his Première Recréation, which appeared later. These are compositions that require very precise ensemble work - any chamber music group who tackled these sonatas knows what I'm talking about: the rattling sixteenth-note passages in the fugues, the virtuosic accompanying figures for the second violin, counter-rotating string crossings over long stretches, the endless sweetness of No. 5's Aria, the austerity of the third movement of No. 1 make them notoriously hard to interpret and to perform. The instructions that Leclair gives in the preface of his Deuxième Recréation is fully valid here too: “Cet ouvrage ne peut être bien rendu que d’autant que les personnes qui l’executeront seront susceptible de goût, de finesse dans le jeu, et de précision pour la mesure” (“This work cannot be well rendered if the persons who perform it do not bring with them taste and subtlety in playing, and precision for the rhythm”).

Leclair’s specific instinct for violinistic sound values is evident everywhere – from bow vibrato in the Largo of the First Sonata through the long spun-out melodies in the Aria of the Fourth Sonata to the double stops and arpeggios in Sonata no. 6. With his high degree of creative power, Leclair attains the perfect symbiosis – the “réunion des goûts” of the Italian and the French styles so aspired to by Couperin.

But what is “Italian,” what is “French” in these sonatas? French are above all the third movements: elegant Airs and gavottes in place of heavy Largos, which are provided with precisely placed ornaments and often give the second violin a virtuoso accompaniment part. Thoroughly French is certainly also the manner in which Leclair treats the harmony and often saturates it to the extreme. His aversion to “indiscriminate” embellishments in the Italian manner, which he expresses in the preface of his fourth book of violin sonatas and refers to time and again in his subsequent works, is also telling: “Un point important et sur lequel on ne peut trop insister, c’est d’éviter cette confusion de notes que l’on ajoute aux morceaux de chant et d’expression, et qui ne servent qu’a les defigurer” (“An important point, which cannot be stressed often enough, is to avoid this confusion of notes that are added to songlike and expressive pieces and only serve to disfigure them”).

All fugues except one (that of the Third Sonata) are marked Allegro ma non troppo, and here, too, Leclair gives us information in his fourth book: “Je n’entends point par le terme d’Allegro un mouvement trop vite: c’est un mouvement guay. Ceux qui le pressent trop, sur tout dans les morceaux de caractaire comme dans la plus part des fugues a quatre temps, rendent le chant trivial, au lieu d’en conserver la noblesse” (“By the term Allegro, I do not intend an unduly fast tempo, but rather a lively tempo. Those, who rush too much, particularly in the character pieces like in the first part of the fugues in 4/4 time, make the melody trivial instead of preserving the nobility”). Thus, one is by no means dealing with Italian excessiveness here, but rather with substantial, refined, harmonic, French art.

The Italian in the trio sonatas of Leclair, who was trained in Turin, is on the one hand the formal structure, on the other hand the entirely discernible desire to create “absolute” music – music that is solely subject to the rules of the art, which was still not a matter of course in France at that time.

But even more than Couperin attempted to promote with his idea of the mixed taste, Leclair not only incorporated characteristics of his national heritage in an Italian model, but treats the material so economically – indeed, nearly Teutonically – that a real forming of a cycle is discernable. Again and again he establishes connections between the individual sonatas, takes up motifs, alters them, and assembles them anew. For example, with each sonata he intensifies the beginning of the opening movement – whereas in the first sonatas the bass starts alone and the violins enter one after the other, things densify little by little until in the last sonata all the instruments begin together sonorously, and the whole is expanded still further into a four-part texture by means of double stops. Just how freely Leclair moves within the Corellian model additionally becomes apparent in movements, such as the Siciliano of the Second Sonata, which, both for Italians as well as for the French, contain unusually complex counterpoint that is reminiscent rather of Bach and Handel.

Leclair – like Corelli in Italy and perhaps Pisendel in Germany – numbered among the violinists who did not want to attract attention with empty virtuoso excesses. In contrast to his solo sonatas, with which he substantially contributed to the formation of a classical, national school of violin playing, the present trio sonatas are entirely free of soloistic bravado and consequently keep the ear free for that which has always distinguished the music of France: classical elegance.


Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

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