Like many musical forms and styles in Western Classical music, the Trio Sonata began life in Italy and was soon taken up by composers all around Europe. But like the String Quartet in later centuries, it proved an almost infinitely adaptable genre, which could be developed to suit local conditions and predilections.
These two releases throw fascinating light on how composers in England and France – even before the High Baroque period after 1700 – adopted and varied the form in line with their cultural habits and expectations but without entirely overthrowing its Italian origins.
Ensemble Diderot set down consistently warm and enthusiastic readings of diverse and little-known repertoire which comprises works that range from a single movement to many contrasting sections. The performers engage sensitively and intelligently with each piece in order to bring out its distinctive character, be that the bright and broad opening of Robert King’s charmingly entitled Sonetta after the Italion way (sic; or the players’ patient and expansive manner with Purcell’s Sonata in four Parts (‘The Great Chaconne’ – whose eight-note ground bass is essentially the same as that of the opening limb of Bach’s Goldberg ground, albeit in flattened minor mode); or in the character or more overtly dramatic pieces La Convalescente, and Tombeau de Monsieur de Lully, by Couperin and Rebel respectively.
Without stooping to national or cultural stereotype, Ensemble Diderot cultivates a prevailing French or English accent for the respective discs – the one more refined and seamlessly integrated in timbre with lightly-applied ornamentation as necessary, the other more robust and sturdy in character, doing justice to the quirky nature of some of the Englishmen’s melodic and harmonic style; the listener is constantly struck by the imaginative strokes of interpretation to which the Ensemble turns. The ‘Canzona’ of the C-minor Sonata by Purcell may be Italian in form but its earthy vivacity comes over as typically English. The second section of Blow’s Sonata in A is based on his hymn The Lord is my Shepherd and is delivered here with an almost folksy familiarity. The Sonatas by Keller and Diessener feature impeccable contrapuntal sequences as might be expected from these German-born composers, but they are despatched with amiable levity, and the Ciaconna by the former encompasses a sprightliness that puts one in mind of Pachelbel’s famous Canon (indeed its ground bass is not so very dissimilar). ★★★★★
Ensemble Diderot also achieves some notably elegant playing for the Paris Album, not least with Philippe Grisvard’s crisp harpsichord; the prominent part which the viol plays in de Brossard’s Sonata in D, as ably realised by Eric Tinkerhess (with its melancholy interjections in the ‘Rondeau’ and teasingly coming into and out of focus in the ‘Riguadon’) recalls the genuine viol consort music of the contemporary French masters Sainte-Colombe and Marais; and the sobbing appoggiaturas of the opening section of Clérambault’s Sonata ‘La Félicité’ attain an intensity to match the expressive vocalism of the Cantatas for which that composer is better known.
As with the London-based repertoire, interpretation always serves the music, revealing the inventiveness and profundity of the music selected, however much that may sometimes appear to function as little more than inconsequential entertainment. ★★★★★
Both compilations include recordings which are claimed to be premieres. But the assured, subtle and irresistible approach which Ensemble Diderot brings to every work here, alongside Johannes Pramsohler’s insightful liner notes (whose learning derives from his doctoral thesis at London’s Royal Academy of Music) makes these releases indispensable listening for admirers of early instrumental music.