Johan van Veen
, January 2009
The first decades of the 18th century France saw much change. The reign of Louis XIV came to an end, and with it the dominance of the traditional French style and the opposition to Italian influence. The recorder was losing ground to the transverse flute, the cello was starting to undermine the status of the viola da gamba as the main low string instrument and composers started to use the Italian form of the trio-sonata.
The way composers dealt with this development was different. Some, like the violinist Jean-Marie Leclair, were ready to take over the virtuosic Italian style. Others, like Marin Marais, resisted the growing popularity of the Italian taste. Most were trying to mix French and Italian styles and opted for the 'goût réuni'. The most famous of them was François Couperin.
This disc seems to prove that Louis-Antoine Dornel was also an enthusiastic advocate of the Italian form of the trio-sonata. Three of the pieces recorded here are from the op. 3, 'Sonates en trio'. They are from 1713 and are among the first trio-sonatas published in France. But not everything is what it seems: Dornel still preferred the traditional French dance movements. The Sonata II from op. 3 contains four of them: allemande, sarabande, gavotte and gigue. But there is some Italian influence, in particular in the imitation between the parts, which is inspired by the trio-sonatas of Corelli.
Only a short time ago I reviewed a disc of the ensemble Musica Barocca, playing Dornel's op. 1, 'Livre de simphonies' (Naxos 8.570826). This opus ends with a quartet, the 'Sonate en quatuor' for three treble instruments and bc. It was left out of that recording because of a lack of space, and I assume it is no coincidence that it is included on this disc. The op. 1 was published in 1709, and in this quartet the Italian style is clearly discernible, in particular in the first movement with its strong contrasts. It is played here on three recorders, and the players realise the dynamic shades as much as recorders allow. I have expressed some reservation about the use of recorders in this repertoire in my review of Musica Barocca's recording. I don't see any reason to change my mind on the basis of this performance. There is however no doubt that the three recorder players make the most of it and deliver a very engaging performance.
The disc contains two sonatas from op. 2, which consists of six sonatas for violin and six suites for transverse flute. In these pieces Dornel follows the typical French tradition of writing character pieces. The Sonata IV is called 'La Forcroy', a reference to the composer Forqueray. The Suite No. 3 contains several character pieces, like 'L'angélique', 'Le Caron' and 'La Chauvigny'. Such pieces are also in the 5th Suite from the 'Pièces de Clavecin' which was published in 1731.
Returning to op. 3, the Sonata VII is written for three treble instruments without basso continuo. In the first movement two of the instruments are playing unisono. In the other movements they split and play their own lines.
I have listened to this disc with great pleasure. The playing is generally excellent and the players fully explore the character of these pieces. Even though the recording by Musica Barocca is pretty good, Passacaglia shows a bit more imagination and zest. I have already mentioned the splendid performance of the quartet which opens this disc. The chaconne which closes the Sonata 'La Forcroy' is given a very exciting performance. In this and in the rest of the programme the players show a very good sense of rhythm. The only point of criticism is probably that the articulation in the harpsichord suite could have been a little sharper. The contributions of Reiko Ichise should be specifically mentioned, in particular in her obbligato part in the fourth movement of the Sonata IV from op. 2.
It is remarkable that within such a short time two recordings of music by Dornel have been released. They show that his music is substantial and is well worth exploring. These two discs complement each other, and—despite my criticism of Musica Barocca's recording—nobody interested in French baroque music should miss them.