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"Le Concert des Violes"

Ensemble Mare Nostrum
Dir: Andrea De Carlo

rec: Sept 2008 & May 2009, Bolland (B), Église St-Apollinaire
Ricercar - RIC 284 (© 2009) (59'10")

Eustache DU CAURROY (1549-1609): Cinq Fantaisies sur Une jeune fillette à 3 - à 5 [2]; Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Concert à 4 parties de violes (H 545); Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661): Fantaisie à 4 (ed. L. García-Alarcón); Fantaisie de violes à 5 (ed. L. García-Alarcón); Fantaisies à 5; Simphonie à 3; Simphonie à 4 (ed. L. García-Alarcón); Claude LE JEUNE (c1530-1600): 3e Fantaisie à 5 ad imitationem Moduli Benedicta es caelorum Regina [3]; Henry DU MONT (1610-1684): Allemanda gravis à 4; Etienne MOULINIÉ (c1600-c1669): 1e Fantaisie à 4 [4]; 2e Fantaisie à 4 [4]; 3e Fantaisie à 4 [4]; François ROBERDAY (1624-1672): Fugue 5e et Caprice à 4 [5]; Etienne DU TERTRE (16th c): Bransles 3 and 1 à 4 [1]; Gaillarde première [1]; Pavane première [1]

(Sources: [1] Pierre Attaignant (ed), Septieme Livre de Danceries, 1557; [2] Eustache Du Caurroy, XXIII Fantaisies à III, IV, V et Vi parties, 1610; [3] Claude Le Jeune, Second livre des meslanges, 1612; [4] Etienne Moulinié, Cinquième Livre d'airs de cour à 4 & 5 parties, 1639; [5] François Roberday, Fugues, et caprices, à quatre parties, 1660)

Andrea De Carlo, Margaux Blanchard, François Joubert-Caillet, Jérôme Lejeune, Anna Kaisa Meklin, Maria Elena Medina, viola da gamba
Bernard Zonderman, theorbe; Leonardo García-Alarcón, Edward Vanmarsenille, organ

The viola da gamba has played a central role in French music for a long time. At first it was in competition with the violin. The booklet quotes Philippe Jambe de Fer (c1515-c1566), a French composer and writer about music who states that violins are only played by "those who live by their labours ... The instruments with which gentlemen, merchants and other people of quality pass their time are called viols". The violins were mostly used for dance music, and their sound was described by Jambe de Fer as "much rougher" than that of the viol.

This view on these two instruments was still held in the 17th century as writings from the time testify. The viol was still strongly preferred as it was more suitable to play polyphonic music, to accompany the voice and "better suited to sadder and deeper pieces with longer bars and slower tempi", Marin Mersenne wrote in his L'Harmonie universelle (1636).

The violin increased its role in musical life, but mainly played at the opera and in ballets at the court. It was only around 1700, when the influence of the Italian style spreaded through France that the violin rose to the prominent position it held since then. And at that time the viola da gamba experienced the competition from another string instrument: the cello.

The competition between violin and viol in the 17th century indicates that we are not talking here about the bass viol only but about the whole range of viols, from dessus to basse. A consort of viols was the most popular instrumental ensemble in France. The music on this disc was mostly written for such an ensemble, although someone like Henry du Mont kept the possibility to play his instrumental pieces on violins open.

The programme opens and closes with pieces by Louis Couperin. Today he is mostly known for his harpsichord music, but he was appointed as dessus de viole in the Chambre du Roi. Some pieces have been preserved with only two parts, dessus and bass. In the liner notes Jérôme Lejeune writes that it is inconceivable that they are to be performed with a treble viol and basso continuo. The basso continuo practice wasn't that much developed yet, and therefore the 'missing' parts have been 'reconstructed' for this recording.

Interesting is also the Fugue 5e et Caprice à 4 by François Roberday. Although it is from a collection which was published in 1660 as organ music it was printed on four staves, suggesting that they could at least be played by a consort of viols.

The latest work in the programme is by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. His Concert à 4 parties de violes is remarkable as he was one of the earliest composers in France who was influenced by the Italian style. He even left out a figured bass part. It has been added here because of the general character of Charpentier's works. This decision is also justified in the booklet with a reference to the fact that most movements are dances, and only the prelude is written in the traditional polyphonic style.

I don't know if all compositions on this disc have been recorded before. Charpentier's Concert à 4 parties de violes certainly has, even more than once, and the Fantaisies by Eustache Du Caurroy were also available on disc. And the kind of music which is the subject of this disc has been paid attention to as well. But what is nice about this disc is that it delivers a comprehensive survey of a genre which was very important in France in the 17th century. French solo music for viola da gamba is certainly very popular as the many discs devoted to the music of Marais, Forqueray and others prove. But the polyphonic repertoire for viol consort is getting far less attention.

The performances are really first-rate. The playing of the ensemble is very dynamic, and as a result often dramatic and full of expression. The players produce a warm and full sound, and the contrasts within and between the various pieces comes well to the fore. The balance between the instruments within the ensemble is very good.

The decisions in regard to performance practice as mentioned above are up to debate. The arguments in favour of a 'reconstruction' of Louis Couperin's compositions may seem plausible. But attempts to bring pieces into line with what today is assumed to have been common practice is questionable. The same is true for the addition of a basso continuo part in Charpentier's Concert à 4 parties de violes. But these decisions are at least given account for in the programme notes, and that is praiseworthy.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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