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Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697 - 1764)
Premier Livre de Sonates
Sonata VIII in G [19:48]
Sonata XI in B flat [13:13]
Sonata VII in F [16:27]
Sonata III in B flat [14:55]
Fabio Biondi (violin), Maurizio Naddeo (cello), Pascal Monteilhet (theorbo), Rinaldo Alessandrini (harpsichord)
rec. 27-29 February 1992, large hall, Arsenal, Metz, France. DDD
ARCANA A 361 [64:10]

Jean-Marie Leclair was considered one of the greatest violinists of his time. He started his career as a dancer, but when he was in Italy he was stimulated to develop his skills at the violin, probably by Giovanni Battista Somis who became his teacher. His compositional output almost entirely consists of music for the violin: four books with sonatas for violin and bc, three collections with pieces for two violins and bc and a set of pieces for two violins without bass. He also wrote twelve solo concertos for his instrument.
The first two books with solo sonatas were written before his time in Italy and are less demanding than the third and fourth books. Even so, they bear witness to Leclair being influenced by the Italian style well before he became Somis' pupil. They are a mixture of the sonata da chiesa and the sonata da camera; the number of movements varies from three to five.
There is certainly no lack of Leclair recordings these days. Things were different when this disc was first released. It can be interesting and worthwhile when such early recordings are reissued, but in this case I am not sure that it was such a good idea. First of all, the recording is disappointing. The violin is very close to the microphone, whereas the basso continuo group is pushed into the background. As a result the balance is unsatisfying and the basso continuo has little in the way of presence.
Secondly, the playing of Fabio Biondi is different from what we are used to hearing today. He was always a bit different from other baroque violinists, even his fellow Italians. To be honest, I have never really liked his style. He uses more vibrato than others, there are too few dynamic accents, and he often plays legato where a more clear articulation would have been preferable. His performances are not very speech-like and the rhythmic pulse is vague.
The Sonata VIII shows these playing features. Add to that the slow tempo of the opening largo and of the third movement, which is a musette. The particular effect of such a movement - which often appears in French music of the time - doesn't come off because of the very slow speed adopted. Adrian Butterfield, in his complete recording of this book of sonatas (Naxos), does a much better job. The fast movements of the Sonata XI are especially disappointing because of the lack of differentiation and insufficiently marked rhythms.
Only in certain movements does their dance character come to the fore, for instance the closing giga from the Sonata VII and the allegro from the Sonata III. The largo from the latter sonata is relatively well done, but the lyricism of the aria from Sonata VII is underexposed. It has the indication gratioso, and that is probably the reason Biondi plays it very softly. That doesn't guarantee that it is also graceful; Biondi's playing is just too feeble-sounding and lacks a true cantabile character.
I have already mentioned the complete recording by Adrian Butterfield, which was reviewed here and here. Together these three discs may cost a little more than this single Arcana disc, but you will get the whole book of twelve fine sonatas in overall much better interpretations.
Johan van Veen