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The French viola da gamba

[I] "Fanfaronade - Masterpieces of French viol music"
Juliane Laake, viola da gamba
Ensemble Art d'Echo
rec: Sept 6 - 9, 2021, Berlin-Wannsee, Andreaskirche
Querstand - VKJK 2110 (© 2022) (69'03")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
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Antoine FORQUERAY (1672-1745): 1e Suite in d minor (Allemande La Laborde) [3]; 2e Suite in G (La Bouron; La Leclair) [3]; 3e Suite in D (La Régente; La Tronchin) [3]; Louis HEUDELINNE (fl c1700): Suite in d minor [1]; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Les Folies d'Espagne [2]; Les voix humaines [2]; Monsieur DE SAINTE-COLOMBE (c1640-c1690): Concert XLIV à deux violes esgales 'Les regrets' Sources: [1] Louis Heudelinne, Trois suites de pièces à deux violles, 1701; [2] Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole, 2e Livre, 1701; [3] Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, ed., Pieces de viole avec la basse continuë composées par Mr Forqueray le père, 1747

Irene Klein, viola da gamba; Magnus Andersson, theorbo; Carsten Lohff, harpsichord

[II] Jacques MOREL (c1680 - c1740): Pièces de viole (1709)
Jay Bernfeld, viola da gamba
Fuoco E Cenere
rec: Dec 2018, Paris, Salle Colonne
Paraty - 129264 (© 2019) (78'18")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
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Chaconne en trio in Ga; Suite première in a minor; Suite deuxième in d minor; Suite troisième in D; Suite quatrième in G

Patricia Lavail, recordera; Pamela Bernfeld, violina; Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba; André Henrich, theorbo; Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord

Scores Forqueray
Score Heudelinne
Scores Marais

As in the course of the first half of the 18th century the Italian style gained ground in France, Hubert Le Blanc thought it necessary to write a book in which he defended the viola da gamba against the 'enterprises' of the violin and the 'pretensions' of the cello. Those were the instruments which threatened to put the viola da gamba into the sidelines. Le Blanc expressed a general feeling: that the viola da gamba was the symbol of everything French in music. It had established itself as such in the course of the 17th century, and in the decades around 1700 the art of viol playing and composing for the viola da gamba had reached its peak with composers as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray.

These three are by far the best-known representatives of that rich tradition and their music is available in many recordings. Specimens from their oeuvre are included in the recording by Juliane Laake and her Ensemble Art d'Echo. However, there is more than meets the eye: some composers of music for the viola da gamba have remained in the shadow of the masters, and to one of them Jay Bernfeld devoted a disc.

Antoine Forqueray is undoubtedly the composer who speaks most to the imagination, as there are quite some stories about him and about his (mis)behaviour towards his wife - whom he divorced - and his son Jean-Baptiste Antoine, whom he mistreated and had imprisoned. By all accounts he was a brilliant gambist, who was strongly influenced by the Italian style. It was especially Italian violin writing that he tried to translate to his own instrument. Unfortunately, he never published any of his works; only a handful is available in manuscript. In 1747 his son published a collection of five suites in two versions: one for viola da gamba and basso continuo and one for harpsichord solo. Whereas there is no doubt that Forqueray junior was the author of the harpsichord transcriptions, there are considerable doubts about whether the viola da gamba versions are indeed from the pen of Antoine; some assume that at least a number of them have been written by his son. Whatever is the truth, they may give us at least some idea of what Forqueray père brought to the table in his playing of the viol. Juliane Laake plays five pieces from this book, which are all character pieces. That cannot come as a surprise, as after 1700 composers increasingly turned to this popular genre, at the cost of pure dances. It need to be noted, though, that most character pieces have the form of a dance, although that is often not specified.

Whereas Forqueray was an apparently wild character, which is reflected in his music, Marin Marais was a model of restraint - the ideal in France under the reign of Louis XIV. He was another brilliant player, who remained true to French tradition. He was close to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who gave him a post in the opera orchestra. Lully was the one who Louis XIV had engaged to create a truly French opera, as an alternative to the Italian opera that conquered most of Europe. Lully aimed at keeping the door closed to the Italian style and Italian influences, and Marais followed in his footsteps. Juliane Laake selected two of his most famous pieces, both from the second book of 1701: Les voix humaines and Les Folies d'Espagne. Marais was one of many composers, who took this pattern - originally a Portuguese dance - as the subject of variations.

Marais was the pupil of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, one of the most mysterious figures of the French Baroque. His first name is not known; some time ago it was thought that his Christian name was Jean, but later it turned out to be the result of a mistaken identity. The fact that so little about his life and career is known, 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. The reason may have been that he, as recent research suggests, may have been a Protestant. This 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. His oeuvre is quite sizeable: it comprises 180 pieces for viola da gamba solo and 67 concerts à deux violes esgales. The former are seldom performed, whereas the latter are quite popular among gambists. Here we get one of them, which - as each concert - has a title: Le Tombeau. Such a piece is part of a long tradition, established in the 17th century, of writing a musical tombstone for a friend, a relative or a revered musician, either a teacher or a colleague. Marais composed a tombeau for Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The latter's Concert XLIV does not specify for whom it is intended, but the various movements - Tombeau Les Regrets, Quarillon, Appel de Charon, Les pleurs, Joye des Elizées and Les Elizées - are typical of the genre.

Juliane Laake did include music by a composer who has remained largely unknown. Very little is known about Louis Heudelinne. In 1701 he published the first collection of music for treble viol. Laake, in her liner-notes, suggests that this may have been the reason that it did not receive any response from his contemporaries. The treble viol was something of the past, and in his time it was the pardessus de viole that made the headlines. It was considered the most appropriate instrument for ladies who wanted to play music for the violin. In comparison, Heudelinne included elements of the Italian style that were not easy to realise on the treble viol. As far as I know only one disc has ever been devoted to Heudelinne's oeuvre (Simone Eckert on Christophorus, 1996). The inclusion of one of his suites here already justifies the purchase of this disc. It is a fine work, and I can't think of any reason why Heudelinne's oeuvre is ignored.

Most lovers of the viola da gamba may have one or more recordings of the other items. Even so, they should investigate this disc, as Juliane Laake's playing is just as good as that of the best in the business (who may be better known). I like her dynamic differentiation and the excellent realization of the rhythmic pulse, which is so important in music largely based on the dance. She gets the help of the basso continuo section, and in Sainte-Colombe's Concert Irene Klein is her equal partner.

Little is known about Heudelinne and his career. We even don't know the years of his birth and death. The same goes for Jacques Morel, who published just one collection of music for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Two other printed editions have been preserved: a setting of the Te Deum (but on a French text) (1706) and a set of cantatas which dates from 1717.

An analysis of the available data has resulted in some assumptions about his life and career. Morel was likely born in the 1680s and seems to have been close to Louis XIV's court. "His Te Deum offers further evidence of early familiarity with the royal household since it was dedicated to Duke Louis Marie d'Aumont, 'Pair de France, Premier Gentilhomme de la Chambre du Roy, Gouverneur de Boulogne', one of the Roi Soleil's most highly trusted and elite courtiers. Morel may have been paying tribute with this publication, hoping for royal patronage or a permanent position at court", Joëlle Morton states in her liner-notes. On the title-pages Morel describes himself as page, and this suggests that he was of noble lineage, since page boys were generally scions of great families sent to learn customs of elevated society.

Morel must have been a pupil of Marin Marais, as the Premier Livre de Pieces de Violle, which was printed in 1709, is dedicated to him. It was only the fourth printed edition of suites for viola da gamba and basso continuo; previously Marais had published his first two books and Louis de Caix d'Hervelois his first book. Notable is that Morel's edition does not come in parts, but rather in score format, "to facilitate the accompaniment, especially by those who would wish to play it on the harpsichord". The book was edited and sold by Henri Foucault, who had also published Marais's second book.

Morel's book includes four suites for viola da gamba and basso continuo and a chaconne for violin or flute, viola da gamba and basso continuo. Each suite opens with a prélude, which is followed by dances and character pieces. The latter mostly concern human characters, but there are also some which refer to specific personalities from Morel's environment, such as Madame Anne Dacier (2e Suite: courante La Dacier), whom Morton describes as a "somewhat controversial" figure. The 4e Suite includes the rondeau Dauphin, which honours Louis's son and heir. Interestingly, several pieces refer to people and places associated with the Anglo-French region of Brittany, and Morton suggests that this may give us a clue about Morel's own origins.

Until recently Morel's oeuvre seems not to have been given any attention. In 2019 Brilliant Classics released a disc with Morel's suites for viola da gamba, simultaneous to the disc by Jay Bernfeld and his colleagues. I can't compare them, as I haven't heard the Brilliant Classics disc. I am very happy with what is on offer here: Jay Bernfeld delivers excellent and often exciting performances. He is the perfect advocate for Morel's music, and demonstrates convincingly that the composer can hold his ground against the main composers of his time. There is lot of variety within these suites, and that comes off perfectly here. The members of the ensemble Fuoco E Cenere are Bernfeld's perfect partners.

This disc is a feast for the ear, and no lover of the viola da gamba should miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Juliane Laake
Fuoco E Cenere


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