Leclair Violin Sonatas, Books I & II

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COMPOSERS: Leclair
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Leclair Violin Sonatas, Books I & II
WORKS: Violin Sonatas, Books I & II: Sonatas Nos 1-5 and 8-12
PERFORMER: Adrian Butterfield (baroque violin), Jonathan Manson (viola da gamba), Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: Book I: 8.570889; Book II: 8.572866

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A recent flurry of Leclair discs includes these two new releases casting light on his early and less familiar violin sonatas. These were seminal works in raising the status of the violin as a solo instrument in France, where it had long been associated with low-life tavern scenes and peasant dances. Leclair’s music is graceful and felicitous, the shadow of Corelli hovering over Book I, while in Book II Leclair exploits new effects and idiomatic techniques, including double stopping, bariolage and a more extended upper range. The rhythms of dance – both courtly and rustic – pervade (Leclair a dancer), and his lyrical melodies are embellished with lacy decorations (he was also a lace-maker).

The two books make for delightful listening, the Sonatas ever varied – here refined, there folksy – and often surprising in their harmonic twists and turns. Violinist Adrian Butterfield and his colleagues are sympathetic interpreters, fully conversant with the intimate yet intricate French Baroque manner. Most successful are the elegiac slow movements, where Butterfield’s playing seems vocally inspired: his sound cantabile, his articulation eloquent. There are charming repartees with the viola da gamba, too, in the tender ‘Musette’ evoking faux pastoral landscapes in the G major Sonata from Op. 1, and especially in the D major Sonata from the second set. Some of the fleet, courtly dances feel rather earthbound, and certain passages that cry out for pliancy and rubato are a touch four-square; yet these minor cavils don’t seriously detract from what are affectionate, highly competent performances.

The recording of Book I is open and resonant; that of Book II warmer, but the violin is a whisker close and the harpsichord recessed. At budget price, though, they make for a most welcome pair of discs that unveil some beguiling and seldom heard music.

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Kate Bolton