De Visée: Intimité et Grandeur

Fred Jacobs French theorbo
Metronome MET CD 1090
Pièces de théorbe  in C, c, d, e, F, g & A

This is Fred Jacobs’ third and last CD of music by Robert de Visée. De Visée’s music is quintessentially French baroque, and Jacobs’ interpretation is spot on. He plays with a gratifying tone, and with carefully shaped melodic lines constantly supported by the sonorous bass strings. In his booklet notes Jacobs writes that, from about 1690, De Visée seems to have concentrated on the theorbo rather than the guitar, and there are descriptions of him playing to Louis XIV and his family at court. The music comes from two sources: the manuscript of Vaudry de Saizenay (Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale), and Rés. 1106 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale). There is much variety – ten different keys, contrasting movements and moods, but always with an overriding feeling of gravitas.

The CD begins optimistically with a short Prelude and cheerful Gigue in C major. De Visée uses the long bass strings throughout, but it is far from ponderous. In contrast are the melancholic Pièces de théorbe  in C minor. They include La Plainte, ou Tombeau de Mesdemoiselles de Visée, Allemande de Mr. leur père, written by De Visée on the death of his two daughters. Slow-moving descending notes, a delicate texture interspersed with lush chords, sweet modulations, and bitter dissonance, all combine to create a heartfelt expression of grief.
The Pièces de théorbe  in D minor include intabulations of works by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and end with variations on the ever-popular tune La Furstemberg.

The opening Prelude of the Pièces de théorbe  in A major firmly establishes the key of A major, beginning with an ear-catching descending scale and insistent diapasons. The restful Allemande gently weaves its way along with soothing melodic lines; the Courante is quite unhurried, and the Sarabande has rich, low-lying, scrunchy chords. An elegant Gigue evokes a jolly old man hopping and skipping along, but somehow still maintaining his dignity. The suite is rounded off with a satisfying Gavotte, charming but never over-energetic. The mood changes noticeably with two pieces in E minor: a short Prelude, and a sombre Sarabande, with unexpected changes of harmonic direction, and anguished dissonance from appoggiaturas. The CD finishes with De Visée’s evergreen Chaconne in A minor, expressively played at not too slow a tempo.

It is unfortunate that the microphone has picked up some of Jacobs’ breathing in the background; it includes a variety of sniffs, snorts and gasps, which are faintly audible. This would not have been so prominent if the microphone had simply been placed further away. The closeness of the microphone also adds a slightly sharp edge to the sound.
Jacobs’ plays a French theorbo made by Michael Lowe in 2004, with string lengths of 83 and 144 cm. Lowe describes the instrument in the CD booklet, and explains how the French theorbo differs from the more commonly heard Italian theorbo. He argues convincingly that the French theorbo should be quite large, and tuned to A.

Stewart McCoy