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The viola da gamba in France: Sainte-Colombe & Marais

[I] "Dialogues - Sainte-Colombe / Hersant"
Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba
rec: Oct 21 - 24, 2019, Saint-Michel l'Observatoire, Église Haute
Paraty - 820196 (© 2020) (61'02")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Philippe HERSANT (*1948): Le chemin de Jérusalem; Pascolas; Monsieur DE SAINTE-COLOMBE (c1640-c1700): [Suite] in C; [Suite] in d minor; [Suite] in g minor

[II] "Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe et ses filles"
Philippe Pierlota, Lucille Boulangerb, Myriam Rignolc, viola da gamba; Rolf Lislevand, theorbod
rec: Dec 7 - 10, 2016, Nantes, Chapelle de l'Immaculée
Mirare - MIR336 (© 2020) (75'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jacques Champion DE CHAMBONNIÈRES (1601/02-1672): Pavane L'entretien des Dieuxabc; Sarabande Jeunes Zephirsabc; Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661): [Suite à 3 violes]abcd; Monsieur DE SAINTE-COLOMBEab: Concert XXVe à deux violes esgales 'La Caligie'; Concert XXVIIe à deux violes esgales 'La Bourasque'; Concert XLIe à deux violes esgales 'Le Retour'; Concert XLIVe à deux violes esgales 'Le Tombeau'; Concert XLVIIIe à deux violes esgales 'Le rapporté'; Concert LIVe à deux violes esgales 'La Dubois'; Concert LXVIe à deux violes esgales 'L'Infidelle'; Robert DE VISÉE (?1650-?1732): Tombeau pour Mesdemoiselles De Viséed

[III] "À deux violes esgales"
Myriam Rignol, Mathilde Vialle, viola da gamba; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo, guitar; Julien Wolfs, harpsichord
rec: June 10 - 14, 2020, Besançon, Collège Victor Hugo (Salle des Actes)
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS043 (© 2021) (79'39")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Étienne LEMOYNE (fl 1680-1723): Prélude in G; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Couplets de Folies [2]; Suite in d minor (prélude; allemande; courante; sarabande; gigue) [1]; Suite in G (prélude; fantaisie en echo; Tombeau de Mr. Méliton; chaconne) [1]; Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732): Pièces de clavecin, Livre premier in d minor (prélude) [3]; Monsieur DE SAINTE-COLOMBE: Concert XXIe à deux violes esgales 'Le Villageois'; Concert XLIVe à deux violes esgales 'Le Tombeau'; Concert LXe à deux violes esgales 'La Majestueux'; Concert LXIe à deux violes esgales 'Le Varié'

Sources: Marin Marais, [1] Pièces a une et deux violes, 1686/1689; [2] Pièces de Viole, 2e Livre, 1701; [3] Louis Marchand, Pièces de clavecin, 1702

Scores Marais
Scores Sainte-Colombe

The viola da gamba was one of the most revered instruments in 17th-century France, alongside the lute. Nicolas Hotman (bef 1614-1663) is generally considered the founder of the impressive French viola da gamba school. One of his most gifted pupils was the man who is only known as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. He also played a key role in the development of both the instrument itself and its playing technique.

Next to nothing is known about his identity. Some years ago the gambist Jonathan Dunford did some research about him and suggested that his first name may have been Jean, and had been a choir director in Lyon. This is also the name which is used in the last disc under review here. However, in his liner-notes to the first disc, Dunford states that more recently documents have been found which undermine this assumprion. "With the discovery of a hitherto unknown marriage contract by Jean's daughter Françoise who mentions her father as 'deceased' signed on 26 August 1680 between Louis Le Bé and Brigide (or Brigitte) (the youngest daughter of the late Jean de Sainte-Colombe), definitely excludes his identification with the violist who was known to be alive after this date" [sic].

We have to live with the fact that we do know neither his Christian name nor the years of his birth and death. It seems likely that he died around 1700, as in 1701 Marais published his Tombeau de M. de Sainte-Colombe. Little may be known about him as a person, there is no doubt about his importance for the history of the viola da gamba and the playing of the instrument. In 1687, the viol player and theorist Jean Rousseau published his book Traité de la Viole, in which he pays extensive attention to Sainte-Colombe. "[In] addition to those fine bow strokes that Mr Hotman taught him, it is to him that we owe those fine hand positions that have so refined the Viol, it was he who began the playing of greater ease and freedom, which meant that the instrument can imitate the beauties of the Voice, which is the only model for all Instruments. It is also to Mr Sainte-Colombe that we owe the seventh string that he added to the Viol, which extended its range by a Fourth. And finally, he brought silver-wound strings to France, and he works constantly to find ways of adding greater perfection to this Instrument, if this be possible".

Dunford points out in what way these improvements explain the nature of Sainte-Colombe's own compositions. "With passages resembling the Italian viola bastarda (improvised music based on a song) the viol is pushed to its limits. In all likelihood because of adding a seventh low A string the viol had to now accommodate the last three strings with metal windings. This invention also helps Sainte-Colombe to write such rapid passage work which on plain gut strings in such a low register would be very difficult to handle". He also mentions how Sainte-Colombe's left hand position - in contrast to the lute techique for the left hand of his predecessors - opened the way for the music of his most gifted student, Marin Marais.

Most recordings of music by Sainte-Colombe focus on what may be the most remarkable parts of his oeuvre: the 67 concerts for two viole da gamba of equal pitch (à deux violes esgales). However, he also left 180 pieces for viola da gamba solo. None of them has a basso continuo accompaniment. It has sometimes been suggested that such a part was missing and may have been lost. However, the basso continuo seems to have made a relatively late appearance in the repertoire for the viola da gamba. Hotman's extant pieces for the viol all come without an accompaniment, and Marais published the basso continuo part for his first book of pieces for the viola da gamba only three years after the latter's publication. Apparently, it was still a matter of consideration whether to add a basso continuo part.

Ronald Martin Alonso plays three 'suites' from one of the main sources of Sainte-Colombe's works, the so-called Tournus manuscript. No autographs of his music are known, and the pieces in this manuscript have been copied by someone close to the composer; he also copied the Concerts à deux violes esgales. The name of the composer is not mentioned, but comparison with another source, which includes pieces by Sainte-Colombe in the same hand allow for an attribution of these pieces to the composer. The manuscript does not group the pieces into formal suites, but rather according to key (D minor and major, G minor and major, C major). It is to the performer to make a choice, and that is what Alonso has done. It explains why the [Suite] in D includes two sarabandes (one in the form of a passacaille), two gigues and two menuets. Notable is a piece with the title of pianelle in the [Suite] in g minor. This is unique to Sainte-Colombe, and the title is derived from the Italian pianella (slipper). It is a dance in triple time with regular undotted rhythms. Also notable are the preludes which are unusually long (more than two minutes in the two [Suites] in g minor and in d minor respectively). Also unique for Sainte-Colombe is that his doubles often not have the same number of bars as the original dance (here in the [Suite] in d minor).

Dunford states that Sainte-Colombe must have been a great improviser, going by, for instance, passages in totally free rhythm. This is confirmed by Alonso: "The freedom of the writing leaves ample liberty to the performer to construct the rhetoric and development of each phrase, to decide on the appropriate rhythmic proportions for each dance, to choose the tempo at which the notes should be played and to consider which moments to accentuate and stress". From this angle, the lack of a basso continuo part makes much sense, as this gives the performer almost unlimited freedom to follow his own route through this music. Alonso practices here what he preaches: these are outstanding and compelling performances, which makes one understand why Sainte-Colombe's music is so fascinating and why he was so widely admired. It is to be hoped that Alonso may have the opportunity to delve further in this brilliant repertoire.

He has extended his programme with pieces by the contemporary composer Philippe Hersant, who has written several works for baroque instruments, including the viola da gamba. The inclusion of his works explain the title of this disc, as Alonso wants to create a dialogue between the composers of different eras. As I have no expertise whatsoever in contemporary music and am also not interested in it, I am not going to comment on either the music or the performance. They take about 15 minutes of the programme.

The second disc focusses on the pieces that have already been mentioned, the Concerts à deux violes esgales. These may well have found their origin in Sainte-Colombe's habit of playing together with his two daughters, one on the treble, the other on the bass viol, in the privacy of his home, to which he sometimes invited a small audience. One could place these duets between the music for viol consort of the renaissance and the music for solo viol of the late 17th and the 18th centuries. The concerts consist of three to six movements: dances, pieces of a more or less improvisatory character as well as pieces of a descriptive nature. An example of the latter is the Concert XLIVe 'Le Tombeau', which includes Tombeau Les Regrets, Quarillon, Appel de Charon, Les pleurs, Joye des Elizées and Les Elizées. The tombeau was a popular genre, and many composers wrote such pieces in remembrance of a deceased person. One such piece was already mentioned: Marais's Tombeau de Mr. de Sainte-Colombe. The quarillon undoubtedly depicts the ringing of funeral bells. The viola da gamba was more suited to this genre than any other instrument, just because of its somewhat plaintive timbre. The lively Joye des Elizées shows a different side of the same instrument. Philippe Pierlot and his colleagues have put together a most compelling programme, which allows the listener to become acquainted with this part of Sainte-Colombe's oeuvre (the complete Concerts à deux violes esgales have been recorded by Les Voux Humaines for ATMA).

The performers decided to include pieces by three of the most famous representatives of their respective instruments of his time: Louis Couperin and Jacques Champion de Chambonnières at the harpsichord, and Robert de Visée at the lute and theorbo. Their pieces are transcribed for viols. The Suite à 3 violes by Couperin and the Pavane L'entretien des Dieux by Champion de Chambonnières have been transcribed for three viols, giving some idea of Sainte-Colombe's performances with his daughters. De Visée's Tombeau pour Mesdemoiselles De Visée - a tombeau for his daughters - is played here at the theorbo, for which they were conceived. The performances are superb; the various pieces are interpreted with great sentivity and intensity, in tone, tempo and dynamics, and cannot leave any listener untouched. No wonder, as we have here some of the finest performers on the viol, and a lutenist who is among the best of his art.

The third disc then connects Sainte-Colombe and his most brilliant student, Marin Marais. That is not a judgement of those who heard Marais play and of modern scholars, performers and audiences, but also of Sainte-Colombe himself, who stated that "there were Pupils who could surpass their Masters, but that young Marais would never find a pupil to surpass him". In order to underline the continuity between the two, the performers start with four of Sainte-Colombe's Concerts à deux violes esgales and then turn to pieces for two viole da gamba by Marais, from his first book. They don't play all the pieces, but have made a selection: we get four of the six pieces in d minor and four of the eleven pieces in G major. The latter includes a Fantasie en Echo, in which the second viol imitates the first in canon, one bar apart. It is followed by the Tombeau de Mr Méliton, organist in St-Jean-en-Grève until his death in 1682 but also likely a pupil of Sainte-Colombe. It is a highly emotional and expressive piece and makes a strong contrast to the ensuing chaconne which is of a more exuberant nature and is exceptionally long (240 bars). The two suites are performed differently: the pieces in d minor are played as a duet of two viols, the pieces in G with the theorbo as a basso continuo instrument.

The disc ends with Couplets de Folies from the second book of 1701. The folia was one of the most popular musical schemes in the baroque era, and used by many composers for virtuosic variations. Marais's contribution to this genre is one of the most exciting, and certainly one of the most brilliant pieces for the viol that he has written. This is for one viola da gamba and basso continuo, but is performed here in the style of Sainte-Colombe's concerts: the two viols alternately act as soloist or basso continuo. Like at the second disc, two composers represent two of the main other instruments of Marais's time: Etienne Lemoyne (theorbo) and Louis Marchand (harpsichord).

Bringing together the teacher and his pupil was an excellent idea, showing the similarities and the differences. As on the two previous discs, we get outstanding performances here. Only one piece by Sainte-Colombe does appear on two discs, and that is the XLIVe Concert. Here it is remarkable how different the last section, Les Elizées, is played: Pierlot and Boulanger take a swift tempo, whereas Rignol and Vialle play it slowly. I don't know what comes closer to the intentions of the composer. I have enjoyed both performances. The Tombeau de Mr Méliton is quite impressive, and the Couplets de Folies outright exciting.

These are three discs that no lover of the viola da gamba may want to miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ronald Martin Alonso
Myriam Rignol

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