Early Music Media Review Print

Overlooked French High Baroque Gems

December 5, 2013 - Williamsburg. MA:

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), Six Sonates pour flute traversière, Op. 91, Douglas Worthen, traverso (Richard Potter, London, c. 1755), Ursula Dütschler, harpsichord (Bruce Kennedy, Chateau-d'Oex, Switzerland, 1988, after Pascal-Joseph Taskin, 1769); Musica Omnia MO 0307, ©2010, 61:33, $11.99.

Readers not intimately familiar with historically-informed Baroque performances and instrument terminology may not know that a traverso is the ancestor of the modern flute, which evolved by turning the vertically held recorder into a horizontally held instrument. It was a French invention developed by the Hotteterre family of composers and wind-instrument makers. It is crafted in the key of D major, is made of wood, and, like the recorder, has no keys, in contrast with the modern flute, which is made of metal and has keys to cover some of the holes allowing the instrument to be longer and have a greater range. The c.1710 painting by Robert Tournières depicting Michel de la Barre and other musicians, now in the National Gallery in London, that graces the cover of the accompanying booklet, shows the musician on the far right holding a traverso in his left hand. A photo of the CD's musicians on the booklet's back cover shows Worthen holding the one he plays, which is made of ivory, but only the mouth end is visible.

The traverso was an instrument, along with the violin, in which the composer received training, beginning at age 11, and the one that he ultimately preferred. He wrote many works for it, beginning with the first five of his more than 100 opus numbers. This set was composed rather late in his life in 1741, the same year as Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Its dedicatee is Michel Blavet (1700-68), the period's most renowned flautist and a composer in his own right. Boismortier was an entirely free-lance composer who never had or sought support from the king or a member of the nobility, a very unusual path in his time that may partially explain his being overlooked since.

These are works in the goûts réunis style that developed around the beginning of the 18th century, fostered by François Couperin and Rameau, who sought to join the Italian and French styles harmoniously and seamlessly; the term is best translated therefore as "united" or "joined together" styles rather than "reunited" (as in the notes in the accompanying booklet) since they had always theretofore been separate and competing.

All but the first of these six sonatas are in three movements, the first being in four, but most of those are marked with terms of moods rather than tempos: Gayement dominates with a total of 10, Gracieusement ranks second with 6, and there is a single Légèrement. The first opens with a Sicilienne and the last closes with a Menuet, the only dance-type names used, although rhythms in other movements are clearly those of dances, like the gigue in the third movement Gayement of No. 3, even if the titles do not name them. The second movement of No. 3 is an Air: Gracieusement, i.e., a song, this word being the French equivalent of Aria. Some of the movements are in fact miniature sonata-form pieces structured ABA. The movements vary in length from about 2.5 to just over 4 minutes, with the majority falling in the 3- to 3.5-minute range. Sonata No. 5, which includes the longest, the aforementioned Légèrement as its first movement, is the longest of the set at about 11:20 minutes.

Although there is a great deal of similarity in the structure of the sonatas, there is a great deal of melodic variety in the music, with some melodies, such as the one in the opening Rondement-Gayement of No. 3, being quite striking. The harpsichord plays second fiddle to the traverso throughout but is more than a simple through- or figured-bass accompaniment/background player. Its part is completely written out, with no indications that any improvisation was required. This suggests that the composer, like most of the French ones, especially the clavecinistes, at that time, wanted the works to be played exactly as written. (Boismortier wrote Quatre suites de pièces de claveci, Op. 59, in 1836.) The harpsichord does have some moments to shine, when the flute is playing pianissimo, but if you listen closely you can readily hear the collaboration required of the part.

One could not wish for better exponents of these works than this duo. Their virtuosic skills are evident without there being any exaggerated or extraneous display in the places where virtuosity is required. The demands on the musicians, from modest to virtuosic, are as varied as the music, and these artists handle them all superbly.

The accompanying booklet is of the standard Musica Omnia style, with a color reproduction of a period work of art gracing its front cover and reappearing partially in black and white on the credits page (15) inside the back cover , and with other portions taking up what would otherwise be white space elsewhere. The program with dates, performers, and instrument IDs is on page 2, with track listings and timings in readily readable type size on pages 3-4, the bio of Worthen on page 5, and that of Dütschler on page 6. The fine notes about the composer and the works by Peter Watchorn, the company's founder, occupy pages 7-12. Worthen offers a note about the specifics of the performance on page 12 and there is a detailed note about Potter, the instrument maker, by David Shorey, on page 13. Watchorn offers a note about the harpsichord on page 14. Aficionados of Baroque flute music will surely want to add this to their collections.