La Mascarade – Works of Robert De Visee and Francesco Corbetta – Rolf Lislevand – ECM New Series

La Mascarade – Works of Robert De Visee and Francesco Corbetta – Rolf Lislevand – ECM New Series 2288, 48:13 (5/27/16) *****:

(Rolf Lislevand, Baroque guitar & theorbo)

The wonders of the French Baroque on contrasting plucked instruments.

The Kingdom of France in the age of Absolutism was organized from the center outward.  At the radiant center was, of course, the Sun King, Louis XIV. Seen within the mentality of the time, he was far more than just a potentate. Rather, he was a sacramental figure. His doings, his health and his moods were connected to the well-being of the entire nation. This meant that there was a lot of fussing about his person, some of it rather comical. For example, The Master of the Chamber Pot would carefully scrutinize the King’s digestive productions to make sure that all was well with the natural order. Skipping over the myriad cooks and gardeners, we arrive at a special class of servants who attended to the Monarch’s spiritual well-being, namely the musicians. One of these had the special role of performing in the the King’s own chamber, at board or at bed. This was in fact the King’s Own Lutenist, and it is this figure whose compositions for the theorbo we will consider in this review.

It was no small responsibility to play for the King in this role. One was expected to provide the highest level of musical delectation while drawing on the potency of the instrument to bring the humours back into alignment.  This was no small task considering that insomnia and dyspepsia were the byproducts of his prescribed daily routine.

Fortunately the King’s own lutenist , Robert De Visee, was well-equipped for the job. His instrument of choice was the theorbo rather than the regnant 11-course Baroque lute. The theorbo is certainly a spectacular instrument in every regard, and its evolution is most curious. It began in Italy (where it is called chitarrone) as a mutation involving attaching a much longer neck extension to the lute so as to add lower unfretted bass strings. Sometimes the necks became monstrously long, making it hard for theorbist safely to go around corners. It did help in ensemble playing, though, adding a lovely sonorous bass texture.  A very few composers saw the instrument’s potential as a solo instrument, recognizing all the refinement of the Baroque lute with an added bottom end. De Visee was the greatest of these.

It is not enough to have the instrument; one must also possess a musical language of the utmost refinement, one formed over a couple of generations and soon to be entirely displaced. That language can be called “The French Baroque.”  It is characterized by a subtle rhythmic langor  rather than the metronomical drive of the Italians. It is a music of intensely realized moments of aesthetic ravishment strung together by modest melodic gestures which add up to ethereal kind of dance. It is music of dream-like, trance-induced blandishment.  This is the music that we hear on this recording by Rolf Lislevand.

Lislevand recently offered a couple of recordings on ECM which aimed at broadening his audience. Alongside his dashing lute and vihuela , we heard snappy percussion, harp, voice and the fretless-bass-like sound of the colascion. Fans of these records should understand this record does not follow the same path. Rather, it looks back to the Norwegian lutenist’s finest recording La Belle Homicide, recorded for Astree in 2003. That recital offered us splendid vision of the height of the tradition, the essence of the language, and the greatest achievements of Ennemond Gaultier, Mouton, Gallot and Dufout.  De Visee is part of this lineage but inclines even more to brooding minor key sombreness with the Stile Brise, use of broken chords,
counter-balanced by the lower bass strings which have greater resonance, thus laying down a sonic carpet over which the higher notes lightly cascade.

In fact, it is one of these plump bass notes that first greets us on the Prelude. Then we fall into a rapturous Passacaille with its light strumming and delicate variations on a repeated chord progression. The Sylvains in honor of Couperin are perfect examples of a chaste melody that evokes a dance in which there is little more than swaying. The instrument and the sonic ambience are spot on; Like the King we are two arm-lengths from the player.

The surprise of this recording is the abrupt shift from lute to Baroque guitar, and from De Visee to Corbetta his teacher. The latter’s Passacaille is a shimmering guitaristic swirl of chords which ebb and flow into a modest melodic shape. Suddenly, we are in the South of Europe, but the smaller instrument is not diffident and there is a lot of drama to Lislevand’s playing.

So we go back and forth from theorbo to guitar in this fascinating recital, instruments with two distinct personalities and two musical languages. The contrast works well, and Lislevand’s virtuosity extends to both instruments. His approach to De Visee is not the only one, however. Those wishing to investigate this gracious repertoire would do well to search out the recordings by Eduardo Eguez, Pascal Monteilhet, Jose Miguel Moreno and Miguel Yisrael. Each of these are deeply rewarding and demonstrate the individuality of the theorbo and the important role of the acoustic space.

When I reach the end of the final Chaconne by de Visee, I am as if waking up out of a dream of beauty and loss.  I believe other listeners will experience the same.

—Fritz Balwit

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