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Concert reviews

"La Reine soleil - Music for two viols"

Les Voix Humaines (Susie Napper, Margaret Little, viola da gamba)
concert: March 24, 2011, Woerden, Lutheran Church

Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Polonaise in d minor (BR WFB A 31); Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1689-1755): Petite Sonate in A (from Op. 66); Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): Sonata in D, op. 20,6; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): 15e Ordre in a minor: Le Dodo, ou l'amour au berçeau; Muséte de choisi; Muséte de taverni; Nicolas-Antoine LEBEGUE (1631-1702): Les cloches; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Les voix humaines; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Pièces de clavecin en concert: 1er Concert in c minor; Jean DE SAINTE COLOMBE (2nd half 17th C): Les pleurs & Chacone raportée; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Bourrée alla Polacca; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera' (RV 269): allegro

The viola da gamba was one of the most esteemed instruments in France in the 17th century. It continued to play a role on the music scene in the first half of the 18th century, but it found itself with its back to the wall under the increasing influence of the Italian style and the growing importance of the violin and the cello. This encouraged the lawyer Hubert Le Blanc to publish a book in which he defended the viola da gamba against "the ventures of the violin" and "the pretentions of the cello". A programme as was presented by the two ladies which make the ensemble Les Voix Humaines would certainly have met his approval. Susie Napper and Margaret Little played a programme of music for two viole da gamba, with some original compositions, but mainly arrangements of pieces for one viola da gamba or for other instruments. They didn't only perform French music, but also pieces by German and Italian composers who became part of the repertoire of French musicians and were also performed, for instance, in the Concert Spirituel.

The programme started with Les cloches by Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue, a piece for harpsichord which imitates church bells. The wide dynamic range of the viola da gamba was very helpful to create a convincing performance. Marin Marais' Les voix humaines is an example of a piece for viola da gamba which was arranged for two viols. The first section ended with a sonata for cello and bc by Michel Corrette. This performance with two viols was quite convincing, and in particular the middle movement, an 'aria affettuoso', was played with great expression.

The second section was devoted to two German composers, Telemann and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. As Telemann was a great admirer of the French style, his Bourrée alla Polacca - whose original scoring was not revealed - worked quite well on the two viols. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's Polonaise in d minor, originally written for keyboard, did not: its musical language is at odds with the classical character of the viols. In this performance it sounded like a contemporary piece. I think in his oeuvre one could find a more conservative piece which probably would do better in this scoring. The first half ended with a sonata by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier which didn't need to be arranged: the Petites Sonates op. 66 are scored for two bass instruments, either viols, cellos or basssoons. It ended with a beautiful chaconne.

The second part began with the Premier Concert in c minor from the Pièces de clavecin en concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau. He himself has never written a composition for viola da gamba, and not all movements worked equally well, but in particular the second, 'La livri', was quite successful on the two viols. Three harpsichord pieces by François Couperin followed, and then we heard a piece by one of the greatest masters of the viola da gamba, Jean (or Sieur) de Sainte Colombe. Les pleurs & Chacone raportée was one of the highlights of the evening. The intensity of this piece and its expressive range came brilliantly off under the hands of the two artists. The contrast to the closing work of the programme, the first movement of Vivaldi's concerto 'La Primavera' from his Quattro Stagioni, could hardly be greater. Vivaldi's music was very popular in France in the 1730s and 40s, and from that angle there is no objection against an arrangement as Les Voix Humaines presented. It was an inventive arrangement and brilliantly performed, but no match for the 'real thing'. So it was appropriate that Susie Napper and Margaret Little played a piece by Marin Marais as an encore.
It ended a captivating night of brilliant and creative music-making.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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