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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Pièces de viole
CD 1
Suite in C Minor from the Troisième Livre (1711) [19:41]
Suite in G Minor from the Troisième Livre (1711) [11:47]
Suite in A Major from the Deuxième Livre (1701) [24:28]
Suite in F Major from the Troisième Livre (1711) [15:53]
CD 2
Pièces in D Minor from the Deuxième Livre (1701) [23:36]
Pièces in D Minor from the Deuxième Livre (1701) [10:41]
Pièces in G Major from the Troisième and Quatrième Livres (1711) [20:22]
Pièces in D Major from the Troisième Livre (1711) [8:11]
Jerôme Hantaï (bass viol); Alix Verzier (bass viol); Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord)
rec. Doopsgezinde Gemeentekerk, Haarlem, Holland 16-19 April 1996 (CD1), 5-6 January 1999 , 7-10 March 2000 . DDD
VIRGIN VERITAS 6932132 [72:16 + 63:08]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a welcome reissue of viol music by one of the instrument's most prolific composers, Marin Marais. Born in 1656, he spent all his life in a Paris electric with musical invention. Part of a community of string players, Marais studied with the composer and celebrated player, Sainte-Colombe, who is alleged to have declared after only six months that Marais had nothing more to learn from him. It was Lully's influence, and the latter's advocacy of French - as opposed to the Italianate - forms and style, that further encouraged Marais as a composer, as well as player. A deserved reputation, too, as one of the viol's most persuasive implicit advocates of his instrument persists to the present.

Between 1686 and 1725 Marais published five Books of pieces for viol and continuo. The second, third and fourth of these were published in 1701, 1711 and 1717 respectively. From these Books, eight pieces are presented on this double CD from Virgin Veritas with the French bass viol players, Alix Verzier and Jerôme Hantaï, and his brother Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord).

Interestingly, although published as books, these suites (which contain from seven to forty one pieces) were not necessarily meant to be performed 'complete'. Rather, individual, separate numbers from each in the same key were designed to be 'extracted' and 'reassembled' as collections according to circumstance. This is what the three musicians have done here: two contrasting major and minor pieces on each disc. So the 'from' in each case in no way suggests an arbitrary sampler. Their choices work well. They illustrate the wide variety of compositional styles in which Marin Marais was competent, imaginative and innovative.

The dance, of course, was rarely far from Marais' mind. The basic forms, allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue are here. As are also doubles (elaborated variants), preludes, fantasies and chaconnes. Further, the dance forms were personalised and adapted by Marais to serve his particular expressive purposes - in the way Couperin sometimes also did. We can only guess at the precise occasions or circumstances which inspired Marais to write pieces such as Charivary ('hullabaloo'). The important thing is that the musicians here should enter into the spirit of it and interpret it as they see fit three hundred years later. And indeed they do.

These could in no way be described as rollicking performances. Not that they lack pep or spontaneity. But Verzier, Hantaï and Hantaï have - rightly - chosen introspection, dignity and even respect over abandon in their tempi, phrasing and even ornamentation: listen to the end of the plainte of the G Minor suite from the Third Book, for instance. Very temperate. And all the better for it - Marais gains in stature for such considered playing. Like stopping to examine a perhaps previously dismissed painting more closely.

To continue the metaphor, the painting may well be of a vast landscape for there is no sense of claustrophobia in either Marais' writing or the Hantaïs' and Versier's playing. In contrast with some of the works of another of Marais' contemporaries, Michel-Richard de Lalande, there is little brooding or obscured tone here. For sure, Marais' writing is intense and focused. And the players respect and communicate as much. But they do not exaggerate it with misplaced tenuti or dragging tempi, over-dense harmonics or over-complex ornamentation. The two violists, in particular, play completely in the airy and delicate idiom for which Marais was so well known. The acoustic helps. It's neither stifling nor too dry.

Just the right balance between substance, weight and depth on the one hand - and urbanity, humanity and humour on the other has been consistently struck in all eight pieces here. In part because each is played in its own terms and with its own intricacies and movement having been sensitively brought out. The result is a dignity, a lack of 'fruitiness', from which this repertoire has at times suffered. In short, the three committed players have produced something that is approachable rather through its unselfconscious beauty than because it's an 'example' of anything.

There is a short introductory essay and details of the instruments used… Jerôme Hantaï's bass viols are Pierre Jaquiers from the 1980s after French originals; Alix Verzier's a Charles Riché from 1994 after Nicolas Bertrand; Pierre Hantaï's harpsichords a Joel Katzman (17th century Flemish style), Joop Klinkhammer and Jürgen Ammer from a German model. If you have preconceptions of the music of Marin Marais, these performances are likely to shift them either in the direction of sturdier affection, or greater understanding. If the area is new to you, this gentle, inspired and thoughtful playing may well make you wish you'd come to it sooner.

Mark Sealey


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