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Martin MARAIS: Music for one and two viole da gamba

[I] "Dialogue"
Mieneke van der Velden, Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba; Fred Jacobs, theorbo
rec: June 2014, Renswoude, Koepelkerk
Ramée - RAM 1407 (© 2015) (57'55")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover & track-list

Suite in d minor; Suite in G

Source: Pièces a une et deux violes, 1686/1689

[II] "Images"
Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba; Fred Jacobs, theorbo (soloa)
rec: May 2011, Renswoude, Koepelkerk
Ramée - RAM 1205 (© 2013) (66'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Estienne LE MOINE (c1640-1715/16): Prélude in Ga; Marin MARAIS: Muzette in C [3]; Suite in d minor [1]; Suite in e minor [4]; Suite in F [2,3]; Suite in G [1,4]; Robert DE VISÉE (c1660-c1732): Prélude in Ca; Prélude in e minora

[1] Pièces de viole, Livre II, 1701; [2] Pièces de viole, Livre III, 1711; [3] Pièces de viole, Livre IV, 1717; [4] Pièces de viole, Livre V, 1725

In 1740 a certain Hubert Le Blanc, a staunch supporter of the traditional French style in music, published a book under the title 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). There was every reason to come to the defense of the viola da gamba as it was under serious threat of being sidelined by the Italian cello. Obviously a book like that didn't make much of a difference: around the middle of the century a tradition of about a century came to an end.

That tradition came into existence in the mid-17th century. Three names are connected to the earliest phase in the history of French playing of and composing for the viola da gamba: Le Sieur Dubuisson, Le Sieur de Machy and Nicolas Hotman. Machy was one of the latter's pupils, and probably also of Dubuisson; he was the first to publish suites for viola da gamba (1685). Another pupil of Hotman was Jean de Sainte Colombe, generally called Sieur de Sainte Colombe. He is especially relevant here as he was the teacher of Marin Marais, the most brilliant gambist of his time. It seems that he was a modest character who liked to stay out of the limelights. This may also have been under the pressure of the time. It has been suggested that he was a Protestant. At the end of the century he disappeared from the scene, probably because of Louis XIV's revoking of the Edict of Nantes and his declaring Protestantism illegal. Fact is that none of his compositions have been printed; they all have come down to us in manuscript.

That was very different with Marais. Between 1686 and 1725 he published five books with pieces for viola da gamba and bc. It is interesting to note that the first book of 1686 was first published without a basso continuo part; that part was published separately only three years later. This suggests that the suites from the first book - and probably also those from the other books - can be performed without basso continuo, something which is seldom practised.

The bulk of Marais's compositions is for solo viol. The fourth book includes some pieces for three viols, and the first has two suites for two viole da gamba. These suites have been recorded by Mieneke van der Velden and her former teacher, Wieland Kuijken. This could well be in accordance with the practice in Marais's own days. It seems likely that he wrote such pieces for performance with one of his pupils. Among these were his own sons, one of them Roland who would develop into a composer of considerable stature himself.

It was common practice to leave it to the performers to put together suites of their own choice. It is telling that the first book opens with four préludes, with the numbers 1 to 4. From 16 to 20 we find three gigues, two of them followed by a double. The book ends with the two suites for two viols and here things are different. Every suite opens with one prélude which is followed by a sequence of four dances: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. The Suite in d minor ends with two further dances: gavotte and menuet. The Suite in G is considerably longer. The basic structure is extended by six further pieces: gavotte en rondeau, menuet, gavotte, fantaisie en écho, chaconne and the Tombeau de M. Meliton. The fantaisie en écho is a peculiar piece: the second viol imitates the first in canon, one bar apart. The chaconne is exceptionally long (240 bars) and takes more than seven minutes in this performance. The last piece of this suite is also of considerable length: with repeats it lasts ten minutes. Pierre Meliton was organist in St-Jean-en-Grève until his death in 1682 but was also likely a pupil of Sainte Colombe. This could explain Marais writing a tombeau, the French form of what elsewhere was called a lamento. It is a highly emotional and expressive piece and makes a strong contrast to the preceding chaconne which is of a more exuberant nature.

For the second disc - recorded three years earlier - Mieneke van der Velden followed the practice of selecting pieces of her own choice from various books. She opens with four pieces from the second book which is followed by a Suite in G from the fifth book. But she has included here two pieces from the second book, the sarabande La Désolée and the chaconne en rondeau. The Suite in e minor is again taken from book V. From book IV we hear the Muzette and the disc ends with the Suite in F from the third book. Here she has included another piece from the fourth book: L'Arabesque. These two pieces from the fourth book are part of the well-known Suite d'un goût étranger.

Although the first book includes some character pieces, it is dominated by dances. That is different in the later books. The Suite in d minor includes La Folette and the above-mentioned sarabande La Désolée. The later books include more character pieces, in accordance with the fashion of the time, as the harpsichord books by François Couperin show. In book V we find the allemande La Fière, the rondeau La Troilleur, the gigue La Précieuse (Suite in G), La Simplicité paysane, Resveries mesplaiziennes and Les Amusements (Suite in e minor). As one can see there is no watershed between dances and character pieces: some titles are connected to a dance and many pieces have the rhythm of a dance without specifically referring to it.

It is not always possible to decrypt those titles. Couperin explained that they were merely inspiring him while composing rather than referred to a specific phenomenon or human character. The same could be true for Marais. Gustave Boisdhoux in his liner-notes points out that there is sometimes not even a clear connection between the key of a piece and its title. "[How] can we explain the choice of G major for a Désolée, or of E minor for an Amusements? The titles are given chiefly as a response to the taste of the times: the peasant and the playful are the key characters here, in a game that opposes Nature against Culture".

It is the task of the performer to find a way to characterise those pieces. Mieneke van der Velden does a brilliant job in this respect. 'Images' is one of the best Marais discs I have heard in recent years. Every single piece is given an excellent performance. The chaconne en rondeau which ends the Suite in G is outright exciting. Another highlight is L'Arabesque. There is nothing against a harpsichord for the basso continuo but it is nice to hear here a theorbo as the only basso continuo instrument for a change, especially if it is so sensibly played as here by Fred Jacobs.

The disc with suites for two viole da gambas is of the same standard. It is hard to imagine a better performance than this: two artists who are each other's equals and act at the same wavelength. The Fantaisie en écho is brilliantly played and the concentration in the long chaconne never wavers. The expression of the tombeau is perfectly conveyed.

The music of Marin Marais is very well represented on disc, but even if you have his complete works in your collection you should not miss these wonderful recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Mieneke van der Velden

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