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Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1682-1765)
Music for flute, viola da gamba and b.c.
Ballet de village en trio in G, op. 52,1 [10:46]
Première suite de pièces de clavecin, op. 59,1: ‘La Caverneuse’ [2:55]; ‘La Transalpine’ [1:38]
Trio sonata for treble and two basses in e minor, op. 37,2 [6:25]
Première suite de pièces de clavecin, op. 59,1: La Valétudinaire [3:13]
Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute [recorder] in F, op. 91,1 [10:50]
[Suite] for viola da gamba and bc in D, from Op. 31 [14:19]
Deuxième suite de pièces de clavecin, op. 59,2: La Sérénissime [3:20]
Quatrième suite de pièces de clavecin, op. 59,4: La Frénétique [1:57]
Sonata à 4 parties in c minor, op. 34,6 [7:07]
Umbra Lucis Ensemble
Fabiano Martignano, Manuel Staropoli (recorder), Teresa Peruzzi (viola da gamba [bc])
rec. Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Anghiari, Italy, 2017

The music of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier is quite popular these days. In recent years a number of discs with sonatas and concertos from his oeuvre have been released. It seems that performers of our time have discovered at last that there was a reason why his compositions were very popular in his own. Most of them were intended for amateurs which explains why they are technically not too demanding. However, Boismortier often effectively explores the features of single instruments, and he also wrote music for unusual combinations of instruments, which he treats with strict equality. Every performer can find something of interest in his large output. And let’s not forget that all of his music attests to the good taste which was so highly valued among the upper echelons of society in his time. It is also a typical product of the Enlightenment, as it has clear pedagogical purposes as well.

The present disc offers pieces from several collections. Unfortunately, neither of them is new to the catalogue. I am sure that it must be possible to find something in Boismortier’s oeuvre that has not been recorded as yet. In most cases the collections from which they are taken, are available complete in other recordings, as will be indicated below.

The earliest collection included here is the Op. 31, a set of various pieces for viola da gamba and basso continuo, published in 1730. Boismortier does not use the word suite, but as the pieces are grouped according to key, it is logical to play them in this way, as Fabrizio Lepri does in this recording. The Suite in D comprises five movements: three dances and two character pieces, both in the form of a rondeau. The whole set has been recorded by Jean-Louis Charbonnier (review).

In 1731 a set of six Sonates à 4 parties came from the press as the Op. 34. The title says that the four parts are différentes; does this indicate that they have to be played on different instruments? The choice of instruments is left to the interpreters, and Boismortier adds that the parts are treated ègalement. This piece is a token of Boismortier’s skills in counterpoint.

The Op. 37 dates from 1732; it is a set of five sonatas for a treble instrument and two basses as well as a concerto in five parts. The exact instrumentation of the sonatas is not indicated, and this offers several possibilities. Here the treble part is played on the recorder, whereas one of the bass parts is performed on the viola da gamba. In combination with the recorder, a bassoon would have been a nice option. The five sonatas have been recorded complete by I fiori musicali (review).

The Op. 52 of 1734 is a bit different from most of Boismortier’s collections. It comprises four balets de village en trio; they are intended for “musettes, vièles, flutes à-bec, violons, haubois ou flutes traversières”. However, the fact that musettes and vièles are mentioned first, and the character of the pieces, seems to indicate that these are the instruments for which these ballets are intended in the first place. It is also notable that the score includes the indications seul (solo) and tous (tutti). This suggests a performance with a larger ensemble, as in an Italian concerto grosso. That is the way the whole set has been recorded by Le Concert Spirituel (review).

Another unusual set of pieces was published in 1736: Quatre Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, Boismortier’s only harpsichord works. He was not a brilliant harpsichordist, but he must have had a good understanding of the instrument and its playing technique. He follows the habit of the time by writing character pieces and he does so quite effectively. There is a marked contrast between, for instance, La Sérénissime and the ensuing La Frénétique. The latter is a spectacular piece of the kind one finds in the harpsichord oeuvre of the likes of Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. The four suites are available in a recording by Béatrice Martin (Naxos 8.554457).

Boismortier’s understanding of the harpsichord’s playing technique is confirmed by the Op. 91, one of the latest collections of sonatas which Boismortier published. It includes six sonatas for harpsichord and transverse flute. It is an example of a genre which quickly became popular since Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville had published his six sonatas Op. 3 in 1734, scored for an obbligato harpsichord and violin. Jean-Philippe Rameau, also influenced by those sonatas, published his Pièces de clavecin en concerts that same year. Boismortier treats the two instruments on strictly equal terms. The harpsichord part is quite demanding, in that Boismortier makes use of several techniques which were becoming fashionable, like the crossing of the hands, especially known from the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Boismortier may have composed mainly to serve dilettantes, the harpsichord parts of his opus 91 are definitely not suitable for average amateurs. The entire Op. 91 is available in several recordings, for instance by Musica ad Rhenum (review).

Even though this disc includes only pieces which are already available in other recordings, it makes a nice introduction to Boismortier’s oeuvre. However, there are some issues which need to be mentioned. Some of them I have already indicated above. A relatively minor issue is the line-up in the ballets de village. They seem to be intended for a larger ensemble, and I mentioned the similarity to the concerto grosso. However, as the latter could also be played in the way of a trio sonata, a performance of these pieces by Boismortier with one instrument per part is probably not that much of a problem.

That is different with regard to the choice of recorders for all the ensemble pieces included here. One could argue that the recorder was widely used among amateurs. However, the transverse flute became increasingly popular around the time that Boismortier published his music, and it was also the composer’s favourite instrument. With that in mind the choice of recorders is not the most obvious. In the case of the sonatas op. 91, the recorder seems to be the wrong option: they are specifically intended for the transverse flute, and the recorder changes the balance between the two instruments in its favour. In this recording the harpsichord part is a bit underexposed. The performance of the sonata from Op. 34 on three recorders is also less than ideal.

Lastly, recording this repertoire in a church was a pretty bad idea. There is too much reverberation, which is at odds with the character of this music, clearly intended for performance in domestic surroundings.

However, I don't want to give the impression that one ought to avoid this disc. Overall, I have quite enjoyed it. The players deliver excellent performances, and from that angle this is a disc to investigate. Over an hour of first-class entertainment at budget price, is not a bad deal.

Johan van Veen

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