In an age that spawned the likes of Bach and Handel, Couperin and Rameau, Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764) has been relegated unnecessarily to the back of the bus. He was the most cosmopolitan of musicians, yet unlike the flamboyant Handel, he seems to have had no interest in political self-promotion. Leclair’s music and violin playing were his focus; the violin sonatas recorded here are the first true reconciliation by a Frenchman of the two most disparate musical styles of the era, the French and Italian. He achieved this by careful study and unselfish interaction with many musical luminaries of the period—Quantz, Locatelli, Forqueray, Chéron. The fact that Leclair could not abide the political machinations at court—he quarreled with Pierre Guignon over the choice of repertoire—should not surprise us. The dispute escalated, and in 1737 Leclair was forced into exile in the Netherlands. He returned several years later and entered into semiretirement, which consisted of composing, teaching, and a failed attempt at the theater. The final episode of Leclair’s life was not so pleasant; after Leclair and his wife had separated, he was found late one night murdered in his apartment. A disenfranchised nephew was suspected, but for some reason never brought to trial.
Perhaps all this is secondary to the music, which is sui generis. Each of the sonatas recorded here—the complete Book 1—is cast in the sonata da chiesa format, with predominantly Italian titles: Adagio, Allegro, Grazioso. Yet there are a few characteristic French dances thrown in for flavor: gavotte, sarabande, minuet, gigue. Above all, the music owes its genesis to Corelli, but it is more than mere imitation. Think of Italian chamber music with a French accent—the copious, written-out ornaments are especially indicative of the French pedigree. The technical demands are quite novel for French music of the period; not surprisingly, Leclair is regarded as the father of the French violin school. Above all, this is lively, tuneful, engaging music that has been woefully neglected by period instrumentalists.
Enter Adrian Butterfield, who sets matters right with his skillful and sensitively played renditions of the sonatas of Book 1. Unless you’re the most die-hard opponent of period violin, the sheer beauty of Butterfield’s tone, enhanced by minimal, tasteful vibrato and expressive phrasing, should not fail to please. He is supported admirably by harpsichordist Laurence Cummings and gambist Alison McGillivray—although wouldn’t it have been wonderful if a theorbo had been added to the mix? The recorded sound is smooth and realistic—important virtues in a violin recording. Highest recommendation.