La Gamme et autres morceaux de simphonie
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
La Gamme en forme de petit Opéra [35:41]
Sonate à la Marésienne [12:56]
Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont de Paris [7:54]
Antoine FORQUERAY (1671-1745)
Suite for viola da gamba and bc/harpsichord solo No. 1 in d minor [22:25]
Trio Sonnerie (Monica Huggett (violin), Emilia Benjamin (viola da gamba), James Johnstone (harpsichord))
rec. date and place not specified. DDD
LINN RECORDS CKD 434 [79:00]
In the second half of the 17th century when France was under the rule of Louis XIV it played a key part at the European political scene but this was by no means its only role. Its culture was at its zenith, with a host of brilliant authors, performing musicians and composers. To the latter category belonged two brilliant gambists who were often seen as rivals and opposite personalities. Forqueray has become exclusively known for his music for the viola da gamba. None of his more than 300 compositions were printed during his lifetime, whereas Marais published five books of pieces for one or two gambas.
Those are the core of his compositional output, but he also contributed to other genres. He wrote four operas, a divertissement and a ballet which are both lost, and two motets which also have not been preserved. This disc includes an important collection of music for violin, viola da gamba and bc which was printed in 1723. It documents the changes in Marais's orientation: for a long time he was the hero of the advocates of a pure French style, who tried to prevent it being overshadowed by the Italian taste. In his later music, though, Marais himself was clearly influenced by that new style which became increasingly popular in France. In his latest books of gamba music that influence comes to the fore. The same can be said of the pieces in La Gamme et autres morceaux de simphonie.
It is telling that the longest piece in this collection, La Gamme, has the addition en forme de petit Opéra to its title. It is a sequence of sections in various keys, which follow each other without interruption. It is not only the sequence of various keys which creates strong contrasts that also flows from the variations in scoring. In some passages the violin has the lead, in others it is the viola da gamba that assumes a solo role. Within sections there are also fine contrasts in content which reflects the meaning of the title: "The scale in the form of a small opera". In his liner-notes James Johnstone writes that "Marais suggests possible divisions of the work into two, three or even four sections, 'so as not to bore the listener'". That explains the split of this piece into four tracks. There is little chance, though, that you will be bored if you listen to this piece, certainly not if it is played as brilliantly as it is by the Trio Sonnerie. The specific features of this compelling piece are explored with superior command.
The Sonate à la Marésienne is for violin and bc and comprises seven movements, again of a contrasting nature. It opens with a prelude, and continues with three dances - allemande, courante and sarabande - then a chaconne and a gravement. It closes with a gigue. This is not a straighforward dance suite, as in particular the allemande includes some contrasts. One is hard put to know what to admire more: the way these contrasts are explored, the brilliant performance of the chaconne, the depth of the gravement or the impressive display of the rhythmic pulse in the gigue. The performances by Monica Huggett and her colleagues are always characterised by good taste. It is tempting to end the piece forte, but the ensemble opts for a more intimate approach.
The chaconne from this sonata is an example of a piece based on an ostinato bass. That is also the case with the Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève de Mont de Paris. A three-note figure depicts the ringing of bells (sonnerie) and the violin weaves a web of virtuosic figures over this continuously repeated pattern. You can leave it to Monica Huggett to make the most of such a piece.
The gamba pieces by Forqueray have come down to us thanks to the publication by his son Jean-Baptiste who was himself a gambist. He published 29 pieces by his father and three from his own pen in five suites which were printed in 1747. They are available in two versions: one is in the original form for gamba and bc, the other is a transcription for harpsichord. The artists have decided to perform the first suite in a combination of the two versions. James Johnstone opens with the allemande La Laborde, which is followed by La Forqueray and La Cottin, each played with viola da gamba and harpsichord. The former piece is a self-portrait, and it seems to support what was said about Forqueray, that he played like a devil. Emilia Benjamin makes that clearly audible, with a strongly contrasting and dramatic performance. The second piece is much more refined and elegant. La Bellmont and La Portugaise are played as harpsichord solos; the latter is a brilliant piece which Johnstone plays with great aplomb. The suite ends with La Couperin, again with gamba and harpsichord.
The music on this disc bears witness to the high standard of music-making and performing in the time of Louis XIV. Trio Sonnerie - which derived its name from Marais's piece played here - feels like a fish in water. The playing is superb, technically assured and with an impressive command of the idiom. The refined taste which was so characteristic of French music of the time is perfectly displayed here. The growing Italian influence is also well documented through the theatrical playing - especially in La Gamme.
The Trio Sonnerie is one of the oldest early music ensembles, founded in 1982. It is still going strong and has to be reckoned among the very best at the early music scene.
Johan van Veen
Superb playing.  

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