Marin MARAIS (1656 - 1728)
Pièces de viole oubliées et changées
Suite in A (1686) [21:15]
Suite in C* (1711) [23:08]
Suite in G (1701) [26:15]
Juliane Laake (descant viol*, bass viol)
Art d'Echo (Katharina Schlegel (bass viol), Ophira Zakai (theorbo), Sabine Erdmann (harpsichord))
rec. 8-11 February 2010, Siemensvilla, Berlin, Germany. DDD

Marin Marais is one of the most famous composers of the baroque era. His oeuvre for the viola da gamba is unique in its technical brilliance and depth. He was celebrated in his own time as one of the greatest. But even now there are still things which are hardly known as the title of this discs suggests: 'Pièces de viole oubliées' - forgotten viol pieces. The other word, 'changées' (changed), refers to the scoring of the Suite in C which is played here on the descant viol or dessus de viole, as it was called in France.

Marais was hailed not only as a great composer and virtuosic player of the viola da gamba. French traditionalists also considered him the best defence against the assaults of Italian music. In 1740 Hubert Le Blanc, one of the staunchest defenders of the French style, wrote: "Marais was so skilful in his domain, had such a refined way of composing and such an elaborate playing technique, which was aligned to unmistakable norms, that he (...) could hold out against the attack, which the Romans, Florentines and Neapolitans pursued against France". The difference should not be exaggerated, though. One thing which strikes me when I listen to Marais's music, is that many pieces are quite theatrical, no less than pieces by the best Italian composers of his time.

The Suite in A from the first book (1686) begins with a prélude which works as a powerful statement. It is followed by a playful boutade which can probably best be translated as 'wit'. All three suites have an allemande with a double, and they belong to the most impressive movements, technically and musically. The sarabande of this suite is an expressive piece, which is followed by a gigue with pronounced rhythmic accents. The suite closes with a brilliant rondeau.

The Suite in C is from the third book which was printed in 1711. Although Marais composed his pieces for the bass viol he suggested in the preface of this book that his suites could be played on the descant viol as well. This instrument had become quite popular at that time. Even in Germany composers with a special liking for the French style wrote music for this instrument, for instance Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Melchior Molter. It was considered a better - and more 'French' - alternative to the violin. It was praised for its delicate and tender sound, and that comes well off in the performance of this suite. The prélude lentement which opens the suite is a good example of these qualities as well as the short caprice which follows it. In the allemande and its double the lower range of the instrument is explored. These are two bubbling pieces, showing that there is more to the descant viol than just delicacy. This suite also includes a character piece, referring to the fashion of drinking coffee which had emerged in the last quarter of the 17th century: saillie du Caffé, again with a double. The suite closes with a chaconne.

In the Suite in G from the second book (1701) Juliane Laake returns to the bass viol. The suite begins with a prélude in two sections, slow - fast. There are again some character pieces. Here we have a sarabande la désolée. The slow tempo, the musical figures and the pauses perfectly express the sadness the title suggests. It is followed by a lively gigue la badine. I'm not quite sure what to make of it. A badine is a riding whip in English. So maybe this is a reference to horse-riding, also considering that the penultimate movement is called rondeau champêtre, referring to the life at the countryside. This was a popular subject in France at the time. In his books with harpsichord pieces François Couperin also regularly refers to the countryside. The suite ends with a chaconne en rondeau, combining two of the most popular forms of the time.

This is one of the most engaging and captivating discs with gamba pieces I have heard recently. Juliane Laake is a pupil of Hille Perl and Philippe Pierlot, two of the world's leading viola da gamba players. She herself should be ranked among the very best as this disc shows. The intimate pieces are played with refinement, and in the more extroverted movements she gives all she's got. She and her colleagues have a very good feeling for the often pronounced rhythms. They can really make you move your feet. The fact that they have avoided the most obvious parts of Marais's oeuvre only increases the attraction of this disc. It is not to be missed.

Johan van Veen

A disc not to be missed.