Philidor: Six Parisian Quartets & L'art de la Modulation

Philidor’s name for his collection of quartets, L’art de la modulation, might cause one to expect a thorough exploration of all the major and minor keys as in Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Philidor’s approach is very different. His use of the term ’modulation’ has less to do with musical theory and more with the exploration of colour in the way an artist might modulate from one tone to another in a painted canvas. Each of the six quartets takes us on a quirky journey filled with unexpected harmonic twists and turns. It can be eloquent and charming, but can also surprise the ear and nudge the very edge of sensibility. With so much playful chromaticism, the quartets must have seemed wildly progressive for adherents of the old régime. Although he remains faithful to the standard Italian sonata movements and French dance forms of the time, there is always a twist. Whether it is a dramatic gesture borrowed from opera, a lilting aria or a complex fugue, he manages to capture the glitter of Rococo stylish­ness in entirely new ways. Mark Kramer

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François-André Danican Philidor was a member of an illustrious French musical family, his brother Anne had founded the Concert Spirituel. It was his grandfather, Jean Danican, who first adopted the name Philidor after Louis XIII had used it as a nickname to describe him. Of Scottish origin, the name Danican or D’Anican being derived from Duncan, and if the legend holds to be true, the family were descendants of the family of King Duncan who was killed by Macbeth in 1040. He entered the court of Louis XV at the age of 6 and made his first attempt at composition at the age of 11. He travelled throughout Europe, adapting his compositional style as he went, this led to his music being regarded as quite Italianate in nature, and he spent nearly nine years in London where he was friendly with the likes of Charles Burney, dying there later during the French Revolution. During his lifetime he was probably more famous as a chess master, a game he learnt as a boy whilst waiting to sing in the choir of Louis XV. He wrote an important treaty on the game and still has particular moves named after him today. This despite his reputation as an important figure in the development of the opéra comique.

Published on his return to Paris in 1755 his L’art de la modulation are regarded as a groundbreaking and innovative series of chamber works, which along with his chamber cantata, L’Eté, of the same year are the composers only known chamber pieces. These galant and witty pieces caused quite a stir amongst polite society in Paris, their conversational style in which he pitted the instruments against each other being seen as something different and unique in French music.

The music is beautifully crafted and exceptionally well performed. Although the performers are credited as ‘Ars Antiqua with Elizabeth Wallfisch’ on the cover it is the contribution of Anne Briggs on flute and Geoffrey Burgess on oboe which for me sticks out. Their period instruments have a beautiful smooth and mellifluous tone, something that is matched by the gut strings of the string players, making this a well balanced recording. The recorded sound is sympathetic and captures each instrument well. The notes by Mark Kramer, the group’s viola da gamba player, are excellent and set the music in its historical context, making this a most valuable and welcome recording.  Stuart Sillitoe, MusicWeb International

"Philidor is a wholly unexpected but ravishing delight, coming as he does after long periods of studiously formal French court music. This is Paris not Versailles: intimate, colourful, unorthodox and as brilliant as a shaft of sunshine cutting through a day of cloud. The music is full of uncloying sweetness, unlaboured grace and unforced elan vital, and it's played to joyous perfection by the virtuosi of Ars Antiqua who hit every note with such sympathetic warmth that you feel they must all have known Philidor personally. We can all do with happy surprises and this delectable music, superbly interpreted is one of the best you'll ever have."- Simon Schama, Art Historian & Presenter of BBC Documentaries.

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