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"Fleur De Lys - The Solo Suite before Bach"

Charles Medlam, viola da gamba; William Carter, theorboa

rec: March 22 - 23, 2010, Hollington, Hampshire, Brick Kiln Cottage (The Studio)
Cello Classics - CC1028 (© 2010) (71'04")

Le Sieur DUBUISSON (?-1688): Suite in d minor; Le Sieur DE MACHY (?-1692): Suite No 4 in G [1]; Nicolas HOTMAN (1610-1663): Suite in d minor; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Tombeau pour Mr. de Ste. Colombea [2]; Jean DE SAINTE COLOMBE (c1615-c1701): Suite in d minor

(Sources: [1] Sieur De Machy, Pièces de violle, en musique et en tablature, 1685; [2] Marin Marais, Pièces de viole, [2e Livre], 1701)

It is ironic, isn't it, that this disc with French music for viola da gamba appears on the Cello Classics label. In the first half of the 18th century the Italian cello was in the process of superseding the viola da gamba, the symbol of everything that was French in music. This was the direct reason a certain Hubert Le Blanc published a book in Amsterdam in 1740, called Défense de la basse de viole contre les entreprises du violon et les prétentions du violoncelle (A Defence of the bass viol against the ventures of the violin and the pretentions of the violoncello). Le Blanc, a lawyer by profession, was a staunch admirer of the traditional French style. The title of the third part of his book is telling: "A method to make all music playable on the Viol". It was a final stand designed to save the bass viol from extinction.

For Le Blanc the heyday of the viola da gamba was the time of Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray. Their works are also attracting most attention today, and are well represented on disc. This may give the impression that music for viola da gamba always came with a part for a basso continuo. But that is not the case. The music of previous generations, in particular those of the mid-17th century, receives far less attention. At that time most pieces were written for solo viol, without accompaniment. Even the first book of Marais, which appeared in 1686, was first printed with only a part for the bass viol. An additional part for the basso continuo was printed three years later. It is an indication that in this book the basso continuo is optional.

The first three composers in the programme - Hotman, Dubuisson and De Machy - are largely unknown quantities. Not that much is known about them. Nicolas Hotman was not of French birth. According to Charles Medlam he was from Flanders, others believe his roots were in Germany. He moved to France at a young age: in 1626 he became a French citizen, in 1655 he was employed by the King's brother, and in 1661 he entered the service of Louis XIV himself, as the successor of Louis Couperin. In a treatise on the viol from 1687 Hotman is called "the first in France to compose real Pièces d'Harmonie on the viol, to compose beautiful melodies and to imitate the voice." At his time the design of the suite had not been formalised yet. His Suite in d minor begins with two allemandes, which are followed by a courante with a double, a sarabande, a bourée and two ballets, embracing a gigue.

Soon virtually every suite contained a sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, often preceded by a prélude. In many suites other pieces were added, like a gavotte or a ballet, and often they ended with a chaconne or a passacaille. One composer who extended the suite this way was Jean de Sainte Colombe, who was a pupil of Hotman. He remains a somewhat mystical character. For a long time even his Christian name wasn't known, and he was usually referred to as Sieur de Sainte Colombe. The American gambist Jonathan Dunford discovered that his Christian name was Jean. He also found strong evidence that he was a Huguenot, which would explain that he never had any official position at the court and that at the end of the 17th century he disappeared from public life. This could have been the effect of Louis XIV revoking the Edict of Nantes and declaring protestantism illegal. It could also explain that, according to a newspaper, his son lived in London in 1718. In the Suite in d minor the courante and the sarabande have a double - an ornamented version of the preceding dance -, a gavotte and a ballet, and proceedings end with a chaconne. Sainte-Colombe was the teacher of Marin Marais, who composed the moving tribute to his teacher which ends this disc.

Dubuisson was from Picardy and only seems to have adopted the name of 'Du Buisson' later in his life, adding that he was a 'bourgeois de Paris'. More than a hundred pieces for unaccompanied viol by Dubuisson have survived, and the dissemination of his compositions outside France shows that his music was highly appreciated. His Suite in d minor has the four traditional dances, preceded by a prélude and followed by a ballet with a double. The allemande also has a double.

It is very likely Le Sieur de Machy was a pupil of Dubuisson. He had a position at the court and was the first to publish pieces for viol in 1685. He added a foreword in which he gave many hints in regard to the way the viol should be played. The Suite No. 4 in G is from this collection. To the four dances he added a prélude and a gavotte en rondeau. The suite ends with a chaconne.

This chaconne is the only piece (except Marais' Tombeau) of which I could find another performance in my collection. It was recorded by the Belgian gambist Philippe Pierlot, and was recently reissued as part of a set of discs devoted to the shift from the viol to the violin and the cello in France (Ricercar RIC 296). The difference between his performance and Charles Medlam's is huge. One would think they are playing different pieces. Charles Medlam's playing is straightforward, and rather stiff and wooden, whereas Pierlot's interpretation is full of zest and passion. In a recent interview Pierlot said that he was hugely impressed by the subtlety of French baroque music and he believes the performers went even further than the very detailed indications in the music suggest. He specifically warned against flat performances. And that is exactly what we get here, I'm afraid.

Hotman was admired for the "tenderness of his playing" with which he "charmed all those who heard him". I found his Suite in d minor rather uninteresting, and that is probably more due to Charles Medlam's playing than to the quality of Hotman's music. The Suite in d minor by Dubuisson comes off best, and some movements from the Suite in G by De Machy and the Tombeau by Marais are relatively well done. But in general I am quite disappointed about these performances which lack the elegance and the aristocratic splendour which is so characteristic of this repertoire. That is particularly regrettable as there are so few recordings with French music for unaccompanied viol.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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