J.J. Cassanéa de Mondonville (c. 1711-1772)
The premise presented here suggests that France never really “owned” the violin, at least to the virtuosic, high-art ways that Italian composers/performers first did, and in a way that German composers later did as well. Yet there is evidence of high art, despite its obscurity. The one composer that comes to mind to me is Jean-Marie Leclair. But the opera/vocal composer Mondonville hadn’t come to mind. His opus 2, a series of trio sonatas, is presented in this Audax release.
Having recently stopped in Narbonne, France, I never knew until I read more about the composer that the city in south-east France was the birthplace of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa. A violinist and composer, he later rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rameau and Pancrace Royer after arriving in Paris. The liner notes of this new album by Johannes Pramsohler and his ensemble, Ensemble Diderot, mentions the technical prowess of the composer and the technical challenges of his second opus. These same notes aim to paint Mondonville as an heir to the high art of French trio sonatas, alongside Leclair (whom was born in Lyon, another city I have had the fortune to visit). What’s confusing to me is this composer’s name; is he from Narbonne or Mondonville (located just west of Toulouse)? Perhaps the family was originally from the area? It’s of no especial interest in appreciating the music, I am sure.
The album features six trio sonatas (all can be played by two violins and b.c., however the ensemble here elects to employ a flute in the second part for two sonatas, as a suggestion made via the score). Most take on a four-movement structure, with a contrapuntal movement in second position.
As I’ve enjoyed in earlier releases from Ensemble Diderot, the violin playing is first rate, with impeccable intonation. The challenges spoken for in the notes have to include the double-stopping, not to mention two parts that have fast, interlocking parts that would sound messy if attempted by amateurs. While at times I can appreciate the technical challenges, never do they sound that they’ve been too challenging for these players. The eighth track, from Sonata no. 2, is a good exemplar: there’s challenges in each part (violin 1, 2, and bass) but the ensemble stays together; they each play with a tasteful amount of style and affect, thus exposing to us the otherwise lurking shades of beauty held within the score.
The balance when flute is added stays well-captured and well-executed.
I found that the Fuga movements by Mondonville were just a bit literal, if we were, say, to compare his contrapuntal art to that of Corelli or the later Bach. For instance, when he locks us into a chord progression with figures alternating through the chords, he follows through the progression. What it sounds like to me is that he’s quite deliberate in making his “chase” of the theme between the voices quite obvious, almost to the point of tedium, just before he sets out to surprise, which I think, each time rescues the movements from sounding immature. Pramsholer makes mention of an example of higher art in trio sonata writing, Bach’s trio from the Musical Offering, BWV 1079, which admittedly is far more “serious” as a piece of music, and far more complex in its treatment of counterpoint.
Speaking of Mondonville’s lighter style (compared, perhaps, to some Corelli or the Bach), the Gigue (written curiously in Italian as a Giga) too is quite literal, but it lends a somewhat fresh and modern (in terms of baroque-to-galant) flair to his music. I really don’t have any other music to compare this to, when it comes to his compositional style or flavor. Mondonville is writing in what I’m guessing was his own style, rather than trying to imitate someone else’s.
In some earlier recordings I occasionally cited this ensemble for taking things slower; they never adopted sleepy tempos, but in a few cases I’d wished they’d pushed things just a tad. (I will have to admit, my preference might have been influenced by comparisons to other recordings of the same pieces for which I had already-established preferences for tempo.) In this release, however, I was never wanting anything pushed faster. The 16th track, a Presto, is played at what I’d wager is a perfect tempo. My first thought figured the tempo was quite bold, but after hearing how well the voices all melded into one, I was impressed again with their technical ability. It was quick, but not rushed at all. It speaks to the ensemble’s sense of taste: it was quick enough to impress but not so much so to lessen the music’s impact.
This release leaves me even more curious about Mondonville the composer. There are no issues with the performance. His music is somewhat perplexing to me, it’s not as “deep” or “meditative” perhaps as some pieces by Jean-Marie Leclair, or as another comparison, the composer Tuma. (Tuma came to me several years ago as a “new” or unknown composer in a recording by Concerto Italiano with some really severe, harmonically-rich movements.) Mondonville’s fugues, as fun as they may be with their repetitive themes, and can-never-get-enough-of-descending-fifths harmonic sequences, come across as somewhat shallow. Yet he’s got a fresh-sounding voice, as far as Baroque chamber music goes, and his opus 2, at least, helps us better understand the Parisian sound would after Bach’s time.
What I can’t know, as I’m not a violinist, is whether the virtuosic writing he gives the melody parts is “worth” the effort by the performers. I take it some of this music isn’t “easy playing.” In the end this is not the most profound of music, nor the most finely wrought, but in this instance, it’s well-played and does not betray us for its shortcomings. I liked the pieces, and found them fun and good-humored.