La Guitarre Royalle - International Record Review

Louis XIV was not one to deny himself life's little luxuries. After a hard day as absolute monarch he liked nothing better than to relax to the strains of the guitar every night. (except on Saturdays, for some reason). William Carter thinks we deserved to be pampered too. He has put together an imaginary private concert for us - the sort of thing Louis might have enjoyed at Versailles during the 1670s if his old friend Francesco Corbetta had popped in to give the resident French guitarist the night off. Corbetta's music seems peculiarly well suited to the night. As Carter says, 'although it's exceptionally demanding, it is rarely showy for its own sake and almost never ends with a bang'.

So who was this Francesco Corbetta? Italian born (c1615), he toured Europe on a wave of popular enthusiasm for the guitar which lasted a century and cut boldly across class barriers. Corbetta was the guitar virtuoso par excellence and ended his career in the personal service of Charles II and Louis XIV. the music on this recording is mostly drawn from the earlier of Corbetta's two late collections, both entitled 'La Guitarre Royalle'. The first book dates from 1671 and was dedicated to Charles II; the second followed three years later and was offered to Louis XIV. Together they present the high point of Baroque guitar music in the French manner, matching the sophistication and expressiveness of the finest solo lute, harpsichord and viol music of the era. This is the first recording I have come across devoted to Corbetta played on an appropriate Baroque-style instrument. With astonishingly natural sound from Linn, this is that rare and perfect thing: a pioneering recording where the historical interest is fully matched by the quality of the music and performance.

The sound-world here is mellow and intimate; maybe it's the season, but the sound of Carter's Baroque guitar seems to conjure up autumnal colours...golds, burnt orange, reds and ochre. I've never listened to a Baroque guitar so intently before and I very much like what I hear. To my twenty first-century ears there's a heady mix of refined lute-like textures and the strumming sounds we associate with the instrument today. Carter explains in his engaging booklet notes that only on properly made baroque guitars (still a comparative rarity) is it really possible to integrate the plucking and the strumming - something he does with extraordinary finesse. The opening Chaconne provides a ravishing stylistic conspectus, not least Corbetta's penchant for piquant chromaticism and unresolved dissonances (apparently also favoured by Louis XIV).

This is Carter's first solo recording; he's more usually to be heard as part of the continuo team underpinning the Palladian Ensemble (who also record for Linn). I'm glad he's put his head above the parapet in such a good cause and to such excellent ends. This is an enchanting listen - I for one am planning to follow firmly in Louis XIV's footsteps and enjoy a suite or two before bed. A slap on the back for William Carter for escaping the continuo line and asserting his considerable artistic personality. This is one of 2004's real gems.

06 December 2004