Monday, August 16, 2010

Visee, R. - Pieces de Theorbe - Fred Jacobs, French theorbo



De Visée has had rather less attention – in the English-speaking world at any rate – than he deserves. This excellent release should surely do much to put that right. Both Segovia and Bream occasionally played (and recorded) pieces by him, but there have been relatively few opportunities to get to know his work in extenso. His name is perhaps more often encountered in connection with the musical company he kept than in connection with his own music. From a date around 1690 he was employed as one of the chamber musicians to Louis XIV. As well as playing the guitar at the king’s bedside of an evening, he played his part in the ensemble music making which, at one time or another, included such figures as the viol player Antoine Forqueray, the violinist Jean-François Rebel, the harpsichordists François Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Buterne, as well as the flautists René-Pignon Descoteaux and Philibert Rebille – who said that the idea of the supergroup was a new one!

Almost 200 pieces of de Viseé’s work survive, written for lute, guitar or theorbo, alongside his arrangements (for these instruments) of music by Couperin, Marin Marais, Forqueray and Jean Baptiste Lully. This present recital, played by Fred Jacobs on a French Theorbo made by Michael Lowe in 2004 and equipped with gut strings, includes both original pieces and arrangements from Lully. In making arrangements from the ballets and operas of Lully, Visée and others anticipated the nineteenth century vogue for piano transcriptions of operatic highlights.

Of the Lully transcriptions played by Jacobs, the ‘Entrée d’Apollon’ from Le Triomphe de l’Amour is particularly fine, stately but not pompous, evocative of a grandeur that seems more than merely human, unfussy in a way that suggests a grand disdain - on the part of the music’s subject, as much as its composer - for the pointlessly decorative. ‘Assez des pleurs’ (from Bellerophon) has a different kind of dignity, a persuasive balance of compassion and stoic refusal to give way to mere emotion.

Robert de Visée’s original work is represented by three suites, and a single, detached piece, a genuinely moving tombeau occasioned by the death of his daughters - how many of them there were, and how they died doesn’t seem to be known. Characteristically, it avoids all self-indulgence while being obviously genuine and profound in its emotions. De Visée’s published work contain twelve suites. These include a number of very finely tempered allemandes - of which one, ‘La Royalle’ was a particular favorite with the king - and sarabandes, as well as some relatively sprightly gavottes. But the dominant air is of sobriety rather than gaiety, of dignity and near-melancholy. There is little frivolity to be found here, but much pleasure of a refined and intelligent kind.

When heard on the modern guitar, de Visée’s work carries an altogether different, and generally lesser, charge than it has here. Jacobs’ playing is masterly and his sense of the appropriate idiom thoroughly internalized; the instrument on which he plays has a gorgeous, and thoroughly appropriate, weight of sound, especially at the bottom end; the recorded sound is exemplary.

This will appeal strongly to all with an interest in the French baroque. Those who love the work of the Renaissance lute composers will probably also find much to reward their minds and ears too.—Glyn Pursglove


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