Marin Marais is well known as one of the great players of and composers for the viola da gamba. His compositions, collected in five books, are frequently played and recorded.
In comparison his activities in the field of opera are far less known. Four tragédies lyriques from his pen are extant: Alcide, Ariane et Bachus, Alcione and Sémélé. The latter two are available in complete recordings, by Marc Minkowski (Alcione; Erato, 1990) and Hervé Niquet (Sémélé; Glossa, 2008). It is regrettable that to date the other two seem to have been completely ignored.
Alcione received its first performance in 1706 and was an immediate success. It was again performed in 1719, and after Marais's death it was restaged in 1730, 1741, 1756, 1757 and 1771.
This disc includes the instrumental music from the opera, divided into four suites. Although instrumental music from French operas - in particular those of Lully - circulated across Europe, these four suites have been put together for this recording. They don't follow the division of the opera in a prologue and five acts: the fourth suite opens with the prélude to the third act. This can cause a little confusion as Jérôme de la Gorce, in his liner-notes, refers to the acts in his description of some of the movements.
At this time in the history of French opera dances lacked the sort of dramatic function they would have in the operas of Rameau. Even so, Marais's opera points in that direction, for instance in the way he depicted a storm (Tempête; 4e Suite). Marais includes a part for double bass here, the first in any French opera, and he also added percussion. De la Gorce states that other composers followed his example: this piece "soon gave rise in the operatic repertoire to earthquakes, storms and 'infernal noise'".
The score is very colourful. The French opera orchestra was larger and more colourful than its Italian counterpart. The string body was usually in five parts: dessus de violon, haute-contres de violon, tailles de violon, quintes - mostly played by viole da gamba - and basses de violon. These were joined by transverse flutes (sometimes in alternation with recorders), oboes, bassoons and percussion and, on occasion, trumpets. These colours are used to great effect in the various dances which are connected to the characters or groups of characters in the opera. Among the best-known pieces in Alcione are the passepieds I & II for the shepherds and shepherdesses and the marche pour les Matelots (sailors).
In several pieces Marais juxtaposes soli and tutti: first a phrase is played by solo instruments - flutes, violins or viole da gamba - which is then repeated by the full orchestra. In some dances the A part is for the tutti, then follows the B part with an episode for the trio of woodwind (two oboes and bassoon) after which the A part is repeated.
These four suites show that Marais was a fine orchestrator and knew how to write descriptive music. These qualities come off very well in this 1993 recording. I am writing this review the day after I heard the same orchestra and conductor on the radio in a live concert with suites from operas by Rameau. Over the years Savall and his colleagues have played this repertoire quite often, and their interpretations have become more incisive. Nowadays their performances are more colourful and the rhythms more pregnant. I have the feeling that a new recording of these instrumental movements from Alcione would be even better than this one. However, there is every reason to welcome this reissue. We get here a little more than 50 minutes of great music, which is well suited to repeated listening.
Johan van Veen