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French music for the viola da gamba

[I] Charles DOLLÉ (c1710 - c1755): "L'anonyme Parisien - Pièces pour viole de gambe"
Robin Pharo, viola da gamba; Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba [bc]; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo, guitar; Ronan Khalil, harpsichord; Loris Barrucand, organ
rec: April 2016, Paris, Eglise luthérienne Saint-Pierre
Paraty - 416145 (© 2016) (70'06")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

1ère Suite in G; 2e Suite in c minor; 3e Suite in A

Source: Pièces de viole avec la basse continuë, op. 2, 1737

[II] "Henriette, The Princess of the Viol"
Maddalena Del Gobbo, viola da gamba; Christoph Prendl, viola da gamba [bc]; Michele Carreca, theorbo; Ewald Donhoffer, harpsichord
rec: June 2016, Vienna, Konzerthaus (tonzauber - Studio im Wiener Konzerthaus)
DGG - 481 4523 (© 2016) (60'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I
Cover & track-list
Scores Caix d'Hervelois
Scores Forqueray
Scores Marais

Louis DE CAIX D'HERVELOIS (c1680-1759): La Monguichet [6]; La Toute Belle [5]; Muzette L'Henriette [8]; Plainte [2]; Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY (1699-1782): 3e Suite in D (La Du Vaucel; La Morangis ou La Plissay) [7]; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): L'Arabesque [4]; Suite in G [1/3]; Suite in a minor [4]

Sources: [1] Marin Marais, Pièces de viole, Livre II, 1701; [2] Louis de Caix d'Hervelois, Premier livre de pièces de viole, 1708; Marin Marais, [3] Pièces de viole, Livre III, 1711; [4] Pièces de viole, Livre IV, 1717; Louis de Caix d'Hervelois, [5] Second livre de pièces de viole, 1719; [6] Troisième oeuvre ... contenant 4 suites de pièces pour la viole, 1731; [7] Antoine (?) & Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, Pièces de viole avec la basse continuë, 1747; [8] Louis de Caix d'Hervelois, Ve livre de pièces de viole, 1748

In the first half of the 18th century the viola da gamba was considered the main expression of everything French in music. As such it was vehemently defended against the 'pretensions' of the violin and the cello, as Hubert Le Blanc put it in his book Défense de la basse de viole contre les entréprises du violon et les prétentions du violoncel. The growing popularity of the latter instruments was a token of the increasing influence of the Italian style on French music.

However, the viola da gamba continued to be played, and in the mid-18th century several composers wrote music of high quality for it. The two discs under review here bring us to the 1730s and 1740s. The first is devoted to a composer about whom very little is known, not even the years of his birth or death. The title of this disc says it all: "The anonymous Parisian". That is partly due to the fact that he never held a position at court. It seems that Charles Dollé was mainly active as a teacher of the viol. In 1737 he published four collections of music, the second of which was a set of three suites for viola da gamba and basso continuo.

In his suites he links up with the tradition established by the likes of Charles Hotman, Jean de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. However, his suites are also modern, in that Dollé drops several dances which were a fixed part of older music, such as the bourrée, the gigue, the menuet and the chaconne. In particular the absence of the latter is notable as the chaconne - or its counterpart, the passacaille - was an almost indispensable part of any suite (and of any opera, for that matter). Every suite opens with a prélude, which is followed by seven movements, mostly in the form of character pieces. Dollé shows a predilection for the form of the rondeau, which was becoming increasingly popular in France in his time. Even the Tombeau de Marais le Père from the 2e Suite is written in this form. That makes it a mixture of the modern and the old-fashioned, as the tradition of writing a tombeau at the occasion of the death of a revered personality goes back to the 17th century. The fact that Marin Marais is the subject of this tombeau suggests that Dollé may have been his pupil.

Other notable pieces are a virtuosic fugue in the 1ère Suite and the Carillon which closes the 3e Suite. The latter - or related pieces, like Les Cloches - was also a traditional form; one of Marais's best-known pieces of chamber music is the Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont de Paris, which includes comparable effects. References to life on the countryside were also popular in keyboard and chamber music. Here we find two musettes, in the first and third suites. Every suite includes a sarabande; these are among the most expressive parts of these suites. However, not everything is that serious; the 3e Suite includes a playful tambourin.

Dolle's suites are generally reckoned among the technically most complicated music for the viola da gamba of its time. This may explain why the present recording is only the second in the catalogue. In 2012 Ars Produktion released a recording by Petr Wagner (viola da gamba) and Jacques Ogg (harpsichord), which was originally made in 2001 and had been released on another label. Robin Pharo has a variety of instruments at his disposal for the basso continuo. That is mainly a matter of taste; I never felt that any other instrument than the harpsichord was needed. Especially the use of an organ in this kind of music seems questionable. However, all things taking into account, this is only a minor issue. One may prefer one or the other performance in single pieces. The tambourin is more playful in Pharo's performance, whereas in Wagner's interpretation the Carillon has just a bit more weight. But overall there is little to choose between these two performances and lovers of the viola da gamba should cherish them both. Dollé's suites have much to offer and Robin Pharo's interpretations are technically impressive and musically compelling. This music deserves to be better known and it is to be hoped that this recording will contribute to that.

It is just a shame that the English translation of the liner-notes is pretty bad. Sometimes they are hardly intelligible, and 'Marin Marais le père' is not "Marin Marais's father" (the Marais of Dolle's time was Marin's son Roland). Music and performances of this calibre deserve a better presentation.

The second disc focuses on the life of Anne Henriette de Bourbon (1727-1752), one of the first-born daughters of King Louis XV and Queen Maria Leszczynska, the other being her twin sister Marie Louise Élisabeth. Music was a natural part of the education of children of the royal family and of aristocracy, and the viola da gamba became the young princess' lifelong love. The booklet includes a picture of Madame Henriette de France, as she was called, with her beloved instrument. She must have been a very accomplished player as Jean-Baptiste Forqueray dedicated his collection of Pièces de viole of 1747 to her. Another viol virtuoso, Louis de Caix d'Hervelois, did the same with his fifth book of pieces for the viol of 1748.

Much has been speculated about the authorship of the viol suites by Forqueray: were they from the pen of Antoine, Jean-Baptiste's father, as he claimed them to be, or rather from his own, as many musicologists have suggested? This mystery will probably never be solved. There is no doubt, though, that Jean-Baptiste contributed at least three pieces by himself, and two of these are included here. The reason may well be that Anne Henriette did know Jean-Baptiste personally, but not his father. These pieces conclude the second half of this disc, which comprises a 'Grande Suite pour la Princesse', which Maddalena Del Gobbo put together from pieces by Forqueray, Caix d'Hervelois and Marin Marais.

The career of Caix d'Hervelois spans the entire first half of the 18th century. He probably was a pupil of Marais, and he published his first book of pieces for the viol in 1708; at that time his teacher had only published his two first books. Four more books would follow; the fifth and last in 1748. Like Forqueray he was eager to incorporate elements of the Italian style in his suites, but did not go as far as his colleague. Ms Del Gobbo did not only turn to the fifth book, but also included pieces from the first, second and third. From the fifth book she appropriately selected the Muzette L'Henriette. Also included is L'Arabesque, one of the best-known pieces from Marais' fourth book. The disc also opens with music by this master. The Suite in a minor is from book IV, the Suite in G is put together from pieces taken from books II and III. Obviously Anne Henriette never heard Marais play; he died when she was just one year old. The aim of this disc was, as Maddalena Del Gobbo writes in her liner-notes, "to present her short lifetime in music". The inclusion of music by Marais contributes to that in that they give an impression of the importance of the playing of and the composing for the viola da gamba. The developments in the world of the viola da gamba of her time are unthinkable without the influence of Marais.

Maddalena Del Gobbo has put much effort into this project; she calls it a "true labour of love". That shows in the way it is presented and the way the music is played. The three artists deliver excellent performances, showing true engagement in communicating the spirit of the time, as expressed in these fine pieces for the viola da gamba. Listening to this disc one can imagine the efforts of Hubert Le Blanc to save the viola da gamba from extinction and the love of Anne Henriette for the instrument. The viol was often compared with the human voice, as no other instrument was able to express human emotions in the same way. Those qualities are amply demonstrated here.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Maddalena Del Gobbo
Robin Pharo

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