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"Hommage à Monsieur Sainte-Colombe"

Christine Plubeaua, Isabelle Saint-Yvesb, viola da gamba; Isabelle Sauveur, harpsichordc

rec: August 17 - 19, 2016, Angers (F), Prieuré Saint-Augustin
Bayard Musique - 308 500.2 (© 2017) (64'26")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list
Scores Concerts à deux violes esgales

Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombeabc [1]; Jean DE SAINTE- COLOMBE (fl 1658-1687): Concert à deux violes esgales XXX 'Le Trembleur'; Concert à deux violes esgales XLI 'Le Retour'ab; Concert à deux violes esgales XLIV 'Tombeau Les Regrets'ab; Concert à deux violes esgales LII 'L'estourdy' Suite in d minora; Monsieur DE SAINTE-COLOMBE le Fils (?-?): Suite No. 6 in f minor (Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le Père)a

[1] Marin Marais, Deuxième livre de pièces de viole, 1701

One could rightly consider the viola da gamba a symbol of everything that was French in music. The instrument was played across Europe during the renaissance, but in the 17th century it gradually lost its prominence in Italy in favour of the cello. Until the early 18th century the viola da gamba was played in ensemble - both in vocal and in instrumental music - in Germany and in England, but it was especially in France that a large repertoire for the viola da gamba as a solo instrument was written. Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray were among the main contributors to this genre, and they are by far the most famous composers of music for viola da gamba. In comparison Sainte-Colombe is a far less common name.

Christine Plubeau devotes a whole disc to him, generally called Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. That is how he was known, and he was still known by that name in modern times, until it was discovered that his first name was Jean. There is much mystery about the man. In a guidebook of 1692, including the addresses of the city of Paris, the space for the address behind his name is left blank. The sparing information about his life is partly due to the fact that he never was in the service of the court. That may surprise, considering that he was a famous master on his instrument and the teacher of what was to become the most brilliant gambist of all time, Marin Marais. Recent research suggests that he may have been a Protestant. That could well be the reason that he was never given a position at the court. It could also explain why he disappears from the scene some years after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had given the Protestants some freedom of religion, and why his son lived in London.

That said, there is little known for sure about his biography. However, there can be no doubt about his reputation, as several authors expressed their admiration for his playing and for what he had taught his students. The violist, composer and theorist Jean Rousseau, for instance, wrote, in the form of a letter to Sainte-Colombe in his Traité de la viole (1687): "[We] all know that it is by the grace of your instructions - and more specifically by that elegant hand shift you have taught us - that the viol far surpasses all other instruments, since it thereby received the ability to perfectly imitate the most beautiful features and all the delicacy of song. All masters of the Art that faithfully follow the path you have so happily shown us acknowledge how much we owe you".

However, he also became involved in a conflict about the preferred style of playing, caused by Sieur De Machy, in the preface of his Pièces de violle, en musique et en tablature (1685). This controversy concerned two issues: the position of the left hand and the difference between the viol as a 'harmonic' and as a 'melodic' instrument. Machy was a supporter of the former, Sainte-Colombe of the latter. He himself did not take part in the exchange of hostilities; it was Rousseau who vehemently defended Sainte-Colombe in his pamphlet Réponse à la lettre d'un de ses amis qui l'avertit d'un libelle diffamatoire que l'on a écrit contre luy (1688).

A little more than 200 pieces by Sainte-Colombe have been preserved, mostly for one or two viole da gamba without basso continuo. The pieces for two viols are the 67 Concerts à deux violes esgales, which all have a title. The two instruments are treated on equal terms, but they constantly swap the roles of soloist and accompanist. These concerts have nothing in common with what we today know as concertos. They are in fact suites and comprise three to six movements. Unfortunately these are not specified in the track-list. Like in French keyboard music, in which from around 1700 onwards character pieces were increasingly replacing dances, the meaning of the titles of the concerts remain a mystery to modern performers. It is even not entirely sure whether the titles were given by the composer or by the copyist.

In addition to the four concerts, Plubeau plays two specimens of what was a specifically French genre, the tombeau: a piece in honour of a deceased person. It links up with a tradition which goes back to the renaissance, when composers wrote a piece to express their sorrow at the occasion of the death of their teacher or another revered composer, such as Josquin Desprez' Déploration sur la mort de Ockeghem. Marin Marais' Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe is a heartfelt expression of sorrow for his former teacher. It was published in his second book of Pièces de viole of 1701, which has given food to the suggestion that Sainte-Colombe must have died shortly before. However, it seems likely that he had died earlier. The other tombeau is from the pen of his son; it is a very long piece (a little over 14 minutes in this recording) and the liner-notes suggest that it includes a kind of programme, but again the sections of this piece are not given. Overall, it can't compete with Marais' Tombeau with regard to emotional depth. The programme opens with Sainte Colombeá Concert XLIV, which is also a Tombeau. Here we hear a passage with detached notes, often descending, which obviously depict the sound of funeral bells.

Christine Plubeau and her colleagues deliver refined and incisive performances, which are characterised by a clear articulation and a fine and effective dynamic shading. Plubeau is on her own in the Suite in d minor, which receives a rhetorical interpretation. The cooperation between the two viols in the concerts is immaculate. Marais' Tombeau is performed with a strong amount of intensity, and as a result its sorrowful character comes off to the full.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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