Brussels Trio Sonatas Etcetera KTC1679

Brussels Trio Sonatas
Hendrik-Jacob de Croes (1705-1786)
Trio Sonata in G minor, Op 1 No 3
Pieter van Maldere (1729-1768)
Trio Sonata in E-flat (VR 15)
Trio Sonata No 6 in D minor (VR 6)
Eugène Godecharle (1742-1798)
Trio Sonata in D, Op 3 No 1
Hendrik-Jacob De Croes
Trio Sonata in A minor, Op 3 No 3
Eugène Godecharle
Trio Sonata in C, Op 3 No 6
Project Boussu
rec. 2020 at the Akademiezaal, St Truiden, Belgium DDD
Etcetera Records KTC1679 [53]

There was a time that the Southern Netherlands were the birthplace of some of the greatest composers of their time. I am referring here, of course, to the 15th and 16th centuries, when representatives of the so-called Franco-Flemish school dominated the whole of Europe. Their influence lasted well into the time that the dominance of the polyphony was broken and a new concertante style emerged in Italy. Since then the music scene in Flanders was in decline. It was mostly music from elsewhere which was performed. Music by home-grown composers was largely under French or Italian influence. One of the most important masters was Henry Du Mont, but he worked mainly in Paris. Names which are not totally unfamiliar are Nicolas Hotman, Nicolaes a Kempis, Philippus van Wichel and especially Carolus Hacquart. It is telling that the latter worked most of his life in Amsterdam.

Until 1713 the Southern Netherlands were under Spanish rule. Part of the Peace of Utrecht of 1713 was that it came under the reign of Austria. During the 18th century an improvement in the economic situation led to a rise in the level of music-making. In the field of religious music several composers were active whose works are being rediscovered, like Charles-Joseph Van Helmont and the members of the Fiocco family, but also Hercule-Pierre Bréhy and Henri-Jacques de Croes. There was also much activity in the realm of theatrical music which shows a strong French influence.

In the last few decades the music written by 18th-century composers from the Southern Netherlands has received increasing interest, but there is still much to be discovered. The disc under review here includes music by three composers. Whereas music by de Croes and Pierre van Maldere has been recorded before, Eugène Godecharle is very much an unknown quantity. The track-list does not indicate that the two pieces from his pen performed here appear on disc for the first time. A search on the internet suggests that his music is available only in old recordings from the vinyl era.

De Croes was born in Antwerp in 1705, where he also received his first musical training. In 1723 he entered the chapel of the St Jacobskerk as first violinist. In 1729 he moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he entered the service of the house of Thurn und Taxis. In 1743, his employer, Prince Anselm Franz, was appointed Principal Commissioner of the Habsburg Emperor, and as a result the court moved to Regensburg. At that time de Croes occupied the post of musical director, but decided to move to Brussels instead. Charles of Lorraine, who was Governor of the Austrian Netherlands, had invited him to become the director of his orchestra, first as substitute for the old and sick Jean-Joseph Fiocco. The Governor wanted him to improve the orchestra’s quality, and de Croes was the right man for the job, as he had been responsible for turning the Thurn und Taxis chapel to one of the best in the Holy Roman Empire.

De Croes’s instrumental output comprised a number of symphonies, which are all lost. Only chamber music has been preserved: three sets of trio sonatas and four collections of divertissements for two violins, viola and basso continuo. The Trio Sonatas Op 1 and Op 3 are for two violins and basso continuo, but the latter was reprinted with the indication that the violin parts could be played at transverse flutes. The Project Boussu offers one sonata from each of these two collections. The Sonata in G minor is – as all the sonatas from this set – in three movements: fast – slow – fast. The Op 3 sonatas have been preserved in three different editions; the present recording takes the Sonata in A minor from an edition published by Boivin and Le Clerc in Paris, dedicated to Karl Anselm, fourth Prince of Thurn und Taxis. It is in five movements. Counterpoint is an important element in de Croes’s sonatas. The opening movement of the Sonata in A minor includes a solo passage for the first violin.

Van Maldere was the third of ten children of a schoolmaster in Brussels. Little is known about his musical education, but he likely started as a boy singer in the chapel of Charles of Lorraine. It is possible that de Croes was his teacher at the violin. A document of 1746 mentions van Maldere among the second violinists of the chapel. In 1749 he became the leader of the orchestra. Charles of Lorraine was clearly impressed with van Maldere’s capabilities as he promoted him as much as possible. The good personal relationship allowed van Maldere to make concert tours, for instance to Dublin. There he directed the Philharmonick Concerts. He also appeared at the Concert Spirituel in Paris where his performances met with praise in the Mercure de France: “This virtuoso has a beautiful bowstroke, much precision, and ways all his own. His is a great talent”. Later in his career he developed into a kind of private musician to the prince. He was able to compose and publish his music, and also became involved in theatre productions, to which he contributed compositions of his own. However, it was first and foremost his contribution to the genre of the symphony which constitutes his historical importance.

Van Maldere’s chamber music is not very sizeable. In 1752 a set of six trio sonatas was published without an opus number, reprinted in 1756 by John Walsh in London. From this set the Sonata in D minor is taken, which has four movements and follows the model of Corelli’s sonate da chiesa. In line with tradition, the second movement is a fugue. This set of trio sonatas must have been quite popular, as a third and fourth edition appeared in 1756 and 1765 respectively, both in Paris. The Sonata in E-flat has been preserved in manuscript in a collection kept at the Milan conservatoire. It is written in the galant idiom and consists of three movements.

Eugène Godecharle was born in Brussels and was also a member of the chapel of Charles of Lorraine. He also occupied the post of maître de musique at the church of Saint-Géry. In 1786 he unsuccesfully tried to succeed de Croes as leader of the Royal Chapel; he became first violinist in 1794. His compositional oeuvre is rather small and consists of solo and trio sonatas, quartets with concertante keyboard, harpsichord sonatas and symphonies. The trio sonatas performed here are taken from his Op 3; the date of publication is not known, but was probably between 1765 and 1771. These pieces show the traces of the classical style; Bruno Forment, in his liner-notes, links them to Haydn: “The music of Godecharle adopts the modern idiom of Joseph Haydn in terms of form, phrasing, dynamics, texture and harmony”. There is a clear tendency here to favour the first violin at the cost of the second. The two sonatas comprise three movements, all in the order of modest – fast – fast.

Two things are noteworthy as far as the performances are concerned. First, the ensemble’s name is derived from Benoit Joseph Boussu, who was from northern France and at first made a career as a notary. Later in his life he turned to the profession of instrument maker. In this capacity he worked at several places, such as Liège, Brussels and ultimately Amsterdam. In total 51 instruments of Boussu have been identified. The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels keeps two of them, a violin and a cello, which are still in their original state. “Given their uniquely well-preserved state, which the MIM wants to retain at all costs, neither the original violin nor the cello are allowed to be tuned to pitch or to be played, which is one of the reasons for replicating them”. It is these replicas, made by Geerten Verberkmoes, which the members of Project Boussu are playing here.

The second feature of this recording is that the basso continuo is performed by the cello, without the participation of a chordal instrument. This was in fact quite common during the baroque period, and in particular in the late baroque era. Many collections of sonatas refer to keyboard or string bass for the performance of the basso continuo. Today, this way of performing the bass is seldom practised. The combination of string bass and harpsichord or organ is well established, and often a plucked instrument is added. Too often this is taken for granted, whereas there are reasons to question this practice. Here we have an example of a performance with cello alone, and it works very well.

The reader may have gathered by now that this is a most interesting production. First, it is always nice if the work of instrument makers of the past receives some attention. Without their efforts, most music would never have been performed. The work of modern instrument makers who are willing to copy those instruments also cannot be appreciated enough. This recording demonstrates the quality of Boussu’s instruments and of Verberkmoes’s copies. Second, the practice of performing the basso continuo with cello alone is convicingly demonstrated here. Third, we get an interesting survey of the chamber music written in the Southern Netherlands in the mid-18th century. The six trio sonatas show the stylistic development during the second half of the 18th century.

This music may not shock the world, but it is of good quality and the recording of these trio sonatas is well deserved. They are given excellent interpretations by these three fine players: Ann Cnop and Shiho Ono (violin), and Mathilde Wolfs (cello). They deliver lively performances of the fast movements and explore the expressive features of the slower movements. I hope for more recordings of neglected repertoire from this time and region.

Johan van Veen

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