MONDONVILLE: Trio Sonatas Op. 2 – Johannes Pramsohler/ Ensemble Diderot – Audax 13707, 67:22 (11/8/16) ****:
World premier chamber music from the twilight era of the French Baroque led by researcher/performer Johannes Pramsohler.
(Johannes Pramsohler- violin/ Roldan Bernabe – violin/ Kristen Huebner – transverse flute/ Gulrim Choi – baroque cello/ Philippe Grisvard – harpsichord)
Johannes Pramsohler, the leader of Ensemble Diderot, has dedicated a couple of recent recordings to unknown or neglected works from the Baroque period. Early Music fans will certainly welcome the findings, especially as in this case, they consist of the most central chamber music of the time–the trio sonata–and are by a composer who is not at all a minor figure, Jean-Joseph Mondonville. How these pieces have lain about unnoticed is beyond me, for they are quite good. Mondonville was the director of the Concert Spirituel around the middle of the century and is known primarily as a composer of grand motets. His instrument, however, was the violin, which is the dominant voice the works under review here.
Mr. Pramsohler plays a Rogeri 1713 baroque violin, which blends nicely with Roldan Bernabe’s 1992 instrument modelled on a period violin. In fact, it is occasionally hard to distinguish the two fiddles, both played with persuasive mastery The cellist likewise handles her mid-18th century instrument beautifully, although she rarely has independent parts (an exception being the last movement of the fourth sonata, where the cello carries some swinging syncopation).
These world premier Op. 2 pieces come from 1734, or the Autumn of the French Baroque. The heroic period of Leclair and Couperin was past. The Sun King himself was long dead. The great operas of Rameau and the Querelle des Bouffons was yet to come. However, this period has always seemed to me to be one of ripeness and harvest rather than innovation, comparable to the brilliant half decade of modern jazz from 1955-1960. The language had been codified and refined to near perfection; it remained to choose among forms: sonata da chiesa or camera, comic or serious opera.
The liner notes claim that “Mondonville attained a very successful juxtaposition of Italian and French elements.” As someone long devoted to the French Baroque, I don’t hear this. It sounds like the Italian violin tradition has won over nearly completely. Fancy double-stops, metronomic sixteenth-notes, a learned and hard-swinging counterpoint of the continuo, are fundamentally Italian in inspiration. These virtues are highlighted in the first sonata fuga and brisk presto; the paired violins are perfectly in step, the imitation is nicely delivered.
However, a movement marked gratioso in the second sonata makes an odd impression. The German adage states “from crooked timber, nothing straight can be made.” This movement points to an opposite conclusion: too much symmetry creates a wooden stiffness. The earnest playing makes the dullness of the melodic straightness all the more apparent. Again, in sonata four, a similarly marked movement is a bit torpid, not to be compared with an elegant Corelli adagio, or to the emotional depths plumbed by the Kapellmeister of Leipzig, who would define the heights of the genre about a decade after the composition of these works.
The finest moments of this recording arrive with the transverse flute playing of Kristen Huebner. On sonatas 3 & 5, she substitutes for the second violin, a common practice in the trio sonata. Her tone on the instrument is ravishing and provides more vivid contrast in the melodic voices. The Allegro of 5 begins with an unaccompanied duet, which nicely expresses the genial fencing so elegantly captured on the CD cover. The slow movements benefit greatly, too, from the flute; for a moment we are back in the French Baroque aesthetic, in which the aim is to induce rapture through tonal wizardry rather than melodic beauty.
Overall, these are fine works demonstrating even better playing by the Ensemble Diderot. The Audax label (“courage” in Latin) is boldly enterprising in staking its claim to new repertoire. Mr. Pramsohler should be given total access to any attics, libraries, or catacombs where he might unearth more chamber works that expand our knowledge and appreciation of the European Baroque.
TrackList: Sonata 1 in E Minor; Sonata 2 in B-flat Major; Sonata 3 in G major; Sonata 4 in F major; Sonata 5 in D major; Sonata 6 in C minor;