musica Dei donum
Marin MARAIS (1656 - 1728): "Les Folies d'Espagne - Suite en mi - Le Labyrinthe"
Dir: Marianne Muller
rec: October 10- 14, 2005, Paris, St Michael Church
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 060801 (© 2006) (61'20")
Les Folies d'Espagne ;
Suite in e minor ;
Suite d'un goût étranger: Le Labyrinthe 
 Pièces de Viole, 2e Livre, 1701;
 Pièces, 4e Livre, 1717)
Marianne Muller, viola da gamba;
Sylvie Abramowicz, viola da gamba (bc);
Charles-Édouard Fantin, guitar;
Claire Antonini, theorbo;
Violaine Cochard, harpsichord
This disc contains three of the most famous pieces by Marin Marais for his own instrument, the viola da gamba: Les Folies d'Espagne, Le Labyrinthe and the Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, the latter played here as part of the Suite in e minor from the second book of pieces for the viola da gamba. Marais was a brilliant gambist and one of the top musicians at the court of Louis XIV. In 1679, just 23 years old, he was appointed ordinaire de La Musique de la chambre du Roy, a position he held until his death.
Marais studied with Jean de Sainte-Colombe, generally considered the most brilliant and virtuosic gambist of his time. It seems that in just six months Marais had learned everything Sainte-Colombe could teach him. His teacher didn't hold back from publicly acknowledging Marais' brilliance. Once having heard him play Sainte-Colombe was asked what he thought of his playing. He answered that "there were pupils who could surpass their master, but that young Marais would never find any to surpass him" (Évrard Titon du Tillet, 1732). The Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, part of the Suite in e minor, is an impressive testimony of Marais' affection for his teacher. The tombeau, meaning 'tomb' or 'tombstone', is an instrumental piece with the character of a lament, commemorating the death of a person. It came into existence in France in the 1630's, when the lutenist Ennemond Gautier wrote a tombeau for a colleague. Other composers followed in his footsteps with tombeaus for other instruments, including the harpsichord and the viola da gamba. Marais' Tombeau is full of pathos, and contains chromaticism and unexpected rests. It is given a very emotional and moving performance and its sorrowful character is strikingly expressed.
The disc opens with a series of variations on one of the most famous tunes of the baroque era, the 'folia'. This was originally a folk dance from the Iberian peninsula, which was introduced in the mid-17th century in France, and became the subject of numerous variations. The variations by Marais are very contrasting in character and tempo: some are fast and virtuosic, others much more intimate and lyrical. The contrasts are well realised here, both by the playing of Marianne Muller and by the variety in the scoring of the basso continuo.
The Suite in e minor begins with a prelude in the style of the préludes non mesurés which for some time were an indispensable part of French harpsichord suites. It is played here in true improvisatory style, and it is followed by a fast 'fantaisie'. In the booklet this pair of pieces is compared to the French opera overture. From this perspective there is a little too much silence between the two pieces. In most French music it is basically left to the performer to put together a suite from pieces in the same key. Here we get two sarabandes and two gigues, but with a strongly contrasting character. One sarabande and one gigue are lyrical and concentrate on the development of the melody, whereas the second sarabande and the second gigue are more extraverted and virtuosic and focus on the harmony. Both sides of Marais' composing are impressively displayed by the ensemble.
The disc ends with another remarkable composition, Le Labyrinthe, which is taken from the Suite d'un goût étranger. It starts off in A major and then moves through different keys - symbolising a man losing his way in a labyrinth - before returning to the original key and staying there during the closing chaconne. The recitative-like passages underline its theatrical character, and it is understandable that François-Pierre Goy in his programme notes sees this piece as a foreshadow of the trio sonata La Gamme en forme de petit opéra (the scale in the form of a miniature opera) which Marais composed later in his career.
As I have indicated above Marais' music gets splendid performances here. Technically they are flawless, and the pincé - an ornament which is a vibrato on a single note, comparable with the flattement or finger vibrato on wind instruments - is sensitively applied and very well executed. The dramatic and virtuosic pieces are robust but never harsh, the more lyrical pieces delicate and refined.
In short, this is an excellent recording which anyone interested in music for the viola da gamba shouldn't miss.
Johan van Veen (© 2009)