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François-André PHILIDOR (1726-1795)
Six Parisian Quartets L’art de la modulation
Sonatina I in G Minor [6.47]
Sonatina II in F Major [14.11]
Sonatina III in G Major [12.43]
Sonatina IV in B Flat Major [10.10]
Sonatina V in C Major [8.26]
Sonatina VI in D Major [12.49]
Ars Antiqua/Elizabeth Wallfisch (baroque violin)
rec. Sommer Center for the Performing Arts, Concordia College, Bronxville, New York, 2016
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6347 [65:07]

This is a fascinating recording of interesting and unusual music from a minor master. In his lifetime, François-André Philidor was known as Europe’s finest chess player, and author of a standard text on that game. He also turned out popular light operas and could apparently play three simultaneous games of chess while blindfolded. His musical output included 27 opéras comiques, and three tragedies lyriques. Of his output, few pieces are recorded, though Dynamic have issued a DVD of his opera Tom Jones, conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire. Naxos have released some recordings of overtures, and other bits and pieces can be found in the catalogue.

L’art de la modulation, with its six sonatinas, represents the only extant examples of Philidor’s chamber music, and remarkable works they are. As far as I can tell, the Nimbus recording is the second to be released. Camerata Köln’s 2013 recording is still available (CPO 7774392).

Philidor’s sonatinas are – in the best sense – salon music. We tend to think of 18th century French music in terms of the courtly works of Lully, Rameau and others. Philidor was very much at home in the salons of Paris, and was sufficiently known for his royal connections (and his friends) to find himself on the proscribed list, after the Revolution. Wisely, he fled to England – which he had visited several times before, and where he had friends, including David Garrick. He died in England and was buried in St. James Piccadilly.

Telemann had already added a fourth voice to the trio sonata – this opened greater conversational possibilities. In the current recording, sonatinas are shared among 7 voices, so that variety is maintained. Ars Antiqua is based in New York State. Directed by Mark Kramer (viola da gamba), the other players are Rachel Evans (baroque violin), Anne Briggs (baroque flute), Geoffrey Burgess (baroque oboe) Cheryl Ann Fulton (baroque harp) Leon Shelhase (harpsichord). Elizabeth Wallfisch joins them. There are immense benefits to the listener in the perm-any-4-from-7 possibilities (Philidor was not prescriptive about the instruments) and there is no time for boredom.

The music itself is interesting, technically accomplished and lively, in the way that good conversation is lively. Melodies sound spontaneous as they are thrown backwards and forwards across the voices, with some unexpected turns, just as in conversation one theme is taken up, abandoned and then revisited. The results are charming and never simple mechanical repetition, even though Philidor maintains the underlying structure of Italian sonata form. His slower movements are beautiful, and lovingly rendered here.
No-one who buys this CD will be disappointed. Performances are musical and historically informed. In the recordings, the two wind instruments can sound a little strident in odd moments, though this is not unusual with baroque wind instruments, and an adjustment to the sound control resolved the issue. If I prefer the notably brisker recording of Camerata Köln, that takes nothing from the present performances – after all, some conversations are more leisurely than others.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

 

 




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