Notes and Editorial Reviews
L’art de la modulacion: Six Quatuors
Camerata Köln (period instruments)
CPO 777 439 (56:56)
François André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) was one of those very versatile composers of the Classical era who was largely responsible for the development of the French style after Jean-Philippe Rameau. Coming from a family of royal composers, he was already well-ensconced in the musical establishment of Paris by the age of 20. He proceeded to publish compositions and treatises that
further expanded his reputation. Moreover, he was one of the most famed chess masters, at one time playing and winning three games simultaneously while blindfolded. His 1749 treatise on chess is still one of the best sources for strategy. He also excelled at the
, writing such perennial favorites as
, both of which can be heard on disc today, the former with Lausanne Opera on Dynamic (also on DVD) and the latter on Arion from 2008 with the Rennes Orchestra.
Philidor did more than just compose in the prevalent
(and later full-blown classical) style; he often sought to provide compositions that would be exemplary. In 1736 Georg Philipp Telemann published his
by invitation, which caused a sensation among the musicians of the city. Thereupon followed a flurry of four-part chamber music, mainly in imitation of Telemann’s four-part style that seemed to provide just the right novelty from the run-of-the-mill sonatas and trios that had heretofore been the norm. Philidor, however, was not content to become just another imitator; instead, he decided that a new approach ought to be taken. His works are labeled “sinfonias,” and they are decisively scored for either flute or oboe, a pair of violins, and bass, with the flute specified as “traversière,” rather than a recorder. He subtitled the work
L’art de la modulacion
, which was probably more of a marketing device than an actual description of his compositional goals. Indeed, although there are some eccentric and sometimes bizarre modulations, much of the music in these six quartets is diatonic (not to mention often homophonic, though the inner voices are often independent). The general three-movement pattern, however, follows no set structure, but rather it seems like Philidor was attempting to cram as many possible devices into the works as possible. Sometimes the music is genuinely trippy, such as the delightfully sprightly opening of the First Quartet in G Minor (reminding one of
Tiptoe through the tulips
on more than one occasion), or the light and facile gigue in the Third Quartet in G Major, where the flute and violins play off against each other in sequence phrases. At others, the composer can be much more serious and dramatic, such as the opening of the Fifth Quartet in C Major, where the flute line remains suspended on a
mezzo di voce
above a scalar violin line that contains some rather startling harmonic twists as it ascends chromatically in sections. In the first movement of the Fourth Quartet in B?, the opening violin chains of suspensions above a walking bass are nods to the Baroque, but seem almost downright spooky. Philidor can write both a strict and very complex fugue (the one entering in the First Quartet after the trippy tune) and a more elaborate passacaglia theme and variations (as in the finale of the Fifth Quartet). Finally, his playfulness with more conventional French dance forms can be seen in the rhythmically distinctive
minuet of the Fourth Quartet or the slight, almost Austrian, lilt to the main theme of the minuet of the Second Quartet in F Major, even though there are abrupt excursions between the major and minor mode. Indeed, in the opening movement of this Quartet, I swear I heard the main theme of Mozart’s
for an instant, causing me to wonder if that composer hadn’t heard this Quartet in 1777 during his visit to Paris and thought the simplicity of the motive could have some use later on. In short, Philidor has compiled six works that contain something for everyone, whether the learned or the public, combining conventional dance movements with some very interesting and free-standing movements.
Camerata Köln, of course, does complete justice to these works, only one or two of which seem to have been recorded before. (I found a Koch Schwann disc from 1997 with one of the oboe quartets but was unable to hear it.) No matter, for in this performance every small (and rapidly occurring) nuance comes out clearly and unambiguously. Karl Kaiser’s flute has a nicely rich tone, while Hans-Peter Westermann blends his oboe well with the two violins, played with excellent ensemble by Verena Schoneweg and Ingeborg Scheerer. The continuo, performed by Julie Borsodi on the cello and Sabine Bauer on harpsichord, is nicely discreet and never overwhelming. In short, I think this is a must-have for any collection, not only of French music of the 18th century, but for anyone who really wants to know just how complex and wonderful chamber music by Philidor can be. It is a masterful chess game in music.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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