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Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Premier livre de pièces de viole
Suite in D minor (continuo: theorbo) [28:30]
Suite in G major à deux violes (continuo: harpsichord) [27:27]
Suite in A major (continuo: bass viol, theorbo, archlute) [23:00]
Fantaisie in B minor (continuo: bass viol, theorbo, archlute) [5:31]
Suite in D minor (continuo: bass viol harpsichord) [33:20]
Sujet diversitez (continuo: bass viol, theorbo, archlute) [13:13]
Tombeau de Mr Meliton à deux violes (continuo: harpsichord) [11:33]
Rondeau (continuo: guitar, theorbo) [1:56]
Suite in D minor (continuo: bass viol, guitar) [25:38]
Suite in G minor (continuo: bass viol, harpsichord) [20:27]
Suite in D minor à deux violes (continuo: theorbo, archlute) [19:26]
Suite in G major (continuo: bass viol, harpsichord) [20:45]
Suite in F-sharp minor (continuo: harpsichord) [21:00]
François Joubert-Caillet (bass viol)
L’Achéron: Andreas Linos (bass viol), Miguel Henry (theorbo), Vincent Flückiger (guitar and archlute), Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord)
rec. église Notre-Dame de Centeilles, 2014/15
RICERCAR RIC379 [4 CDs: 256 mins]

François Joubert-Caillet and L’Achéron began their ‘Marin Marais Project’ with last year’s release of a selection of the gambist/composer’s Pièces Favorites (RIC 364). That disc effectively serves as an amuse bouche for the encyclopaedic venture which they embark upon with this recording of the first of Marais’s five books of pieces de violes.
Marais was thirty-years-old when the Premier livre was published in 1586. He had been appointed ‘Musicien ordinaire de la chambre du Roi’ by Louis XIV in 1579 and was to be closely linked to the Parisian royal court for several decades, and was thus enormously influential in shaping French musical culture at a time when the solo viol was at its peak of popularity and refinement. The works recorded here confirm the validity of the esteem in which Marais was held, as both a highly skilled performer and inventive composer.
The Premier livre comprises 93 pieces, divided into suites for viol with continuo accompaniment, suites for two viols, and four independent pieces. The individual dance movements were not originally assembled into ‘suites’ and on this disc the works are numbered to indicate the order in which they appeared in the first edition. The most common movements are Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabandes, Gigues and Gavottes/Minuets, but occasionally Preludes are followed by Fantasias, or a Rondeau or Chaconne concludes a suite. Marais’s Avertissement explains that he hoped the works would satisfy both less skilled musicians and the most talented, and several ornate Doubles would certainly test the dexterity of the latter.
Though the dance forms have an established ‘identity’, one is struck not just by the astonishing range of moods that Marais achieves within such a prevailing ‘character’ but also by the diversity of emotions that he draws from individual keys. Moreover, Marais described his collection as containing dances presented with “all the ornaments that should accompany them”’ and others which have “hardly any chords”. Thus, in some works, often of a grave character, chordal textures predominate, while faster numbers are primarily melodic; with characteristic innovation, however, Marais does not identify the ‘styles’ strictly with specific dances and there is much variety across dances of a given type.
The sources for the solo viol music composed by the generation preceding Marais show that it was unaccompanied, and one of the innovations of the Premier livre was the inclusion of a basso continuo part, although there is no reference to this part on the title page or in the Avertissement and it was not actually published until nearly three years later. Marais later clarified the reason for the delay: “When I put my book of Pièces a une et a deux Violes before the public, I had planned at the same time to bring out the basse continue parts, which are essential. But because engraving is a very long process, I was obliged to delay the publication until now. I have figured them all for the harpsichord or the theorbo, which goes very well with the viol that plays the solo part.”
The instrumental groups here, explains Joubert-Caillet, have been determined by the perceived moods and emotion of the suites: a single theorbo or guitar accompanies the ‘intimate’ suites while those that are more florid employ both, while the ‘radiant’ and ‘many-hued’ suites make use of the harpsichord.
The first suite, in D minor, on CD1 presents all the beguiling features of Joubert-Caillet’s playing and interactions. The unaccompanied introduction to the opening Prelude pits the grainy pressure and melancholy weight of the viol’s lower register against the incisiveness and clarity of the rising melody. Infinitely varied articulation, pertinent emphasis within the phrases and continuity between them, a wide dynamic range, and the skilful voicing of bass and melody lines combine to create a compulsive expressive force. The interaction of theorbo and solo in the Prelude proper is intricate and intimate; exaggerated gesture and dynamic contrast create drama. The continuo and the solo viol segue between collusion and independence. The animation of the Fantaisie is juxtaposed with the majestic richness of the Allemande, in which the continuo adopts a surprisingly elaborate freedom in the inner voices which contrasts with the chordal breadth of the viol’s melody. The polyphonic dialogues are superbly clear and as Joubert-Caillet moves seamlessly between registers, here and in the subsequent Double, it is as if he is duetting with himself.
Within the low tessitura of a restless Courante, viol and bass theorbo line entwine, before the viol extricates itself and climbs, pronouncing more assertively. The use of the continuo seems to allow Marais to explore the viol’s capacity for virtuosity and to expand the use of the upper register – though there is more use of the middle and low registers of the solo viol in the Premier livre than is the case in the later books. In the Sarabande, trills in both instruments present a resistance to the expressive burden which threatens to dispel forward movement, after which the rhythmically free Gigue feels rebellious in spirit. The concluding pair of dances are a dark, lilting Menuet, and a more measured reflective Rondeau.
After the expressive privacy of the D minor suite, in the following statelier G major suite on CD1, the two viols are accompanied by the harpsichord, and though the viols themselves are used equally as solo and bass, there is some lovely partnership as in the Allemande where the concordance of sentiment and ornament is admirable. The regal chords of the opening Prelude are unusually propulsive; the Chaconne creates both spaciousness and fullness, but is also inflected with some surprising harmonic nuances. The Sarabande is, by contrast, more gentle and reflective, as the long-breathed thirds and sixths unwind. The Gigue has a surprising rustic swagger, while the energy of the Gavotte en rondeau is more courtly, though no less coercive.
For the A major suite which opens CD2, the continuo comprises bass viol, theorbo and archlute, an ensemble which gives the Prelude and Allemande a greater stature and majesty. There is no sense of ‘sturdiness’ though: the scalic bass lines run vigorously in the Boutade, and the Menuet and Rondeau at the close are refreshingly airy. There is unflagging polyphonic engagement in the Double; the almost treacly blend of the first of two Sarabandes, tempered by the slight nasality of the melody, acquires a hymn-like sincerity; while in the second the dialogue between the echoing theorbo and more staccato lute creates a dynamism which is complemented by the dance’s strange harmonic tints.
The independent works offer rich pickings. CD2 includes the Fantaisie in B minor which, as Joubert-Caillet comments, is more like the ‘adagio-allegro’ of the Italian sonata da camera: the ‘adagio’ twists and turns in seemingly endless harmonic and textural explorations, while the ‘allegro’ clears the air with brusque envigored statements and patterns. CD3 opens with the Sujet diversitez – twenty variations on a ground bass, of a tune which Marais declared was ‘given to me by a Foreigner’(the form, mimicking the English model) was becoming rarer at this time, which adds to the interest generated by the melodic and textural invention, and by Joubert-Caillet’s virtuosic elaborations of the theme.
One of the finest works in the livre is the Tombeau de Mr Meliton à deux violes, a long work descriptive of the “journey of a human soul from the world of the living to eternal rest”. The dissonances are worthy of the finest and most ‘irregular’ Monteverdian madrigal; the bass viol line often speaks with a Hadean authority; the harpsichord’s decorative rhetoric tugs the emotional strings this way and that; the emotion-wringing is paradoxically fertile and ceaseless.
The dances of discs 3 and 4 continue to throw up surprises. The Gigue of the G minor suite is unusually subdued, as if quelled by the darkness of the preceding Sarabande. The Menuet of the same suite is troubled by a trenchant pedal that refuses to budge, a lingering presence from the previous dark-toned Gavotte. I was particularly beguiled by the final F-sharp minor suite on CD4, in the Prelude of which the breadth of expressive rhetoric is astonishing, and the Allemande of which has a purity of melodic utterance which truly touches the soul. The melodically forthright but rhythmically restrained Courante is followed by a double-stopped Sarabande of deep intensity. The high viol dances unrestrainedly and lucidly in the Gigue, before the light-running melody becomes increasingly engaged in contrapuntal dialogue which quells the exuberance.
Some items from the Premier livre were recorded by Jordi Savall, Christophe Coin, Ton Koopman and Hopkinson Smith for the Astree label in 1979 (and released in CD format ten years later), but that disc includes only two suites and a chaconne. Joubert-Caillet’s project is a monumental, adventurous and exciting one. Of course, Marais’s livres were never intended to be played or listened to in their entirety, but in recording the Premier livre Joubert-Caillet has ensured that the diversity of emotions, styles and timbres sustains the listener’s attention.
The recording is handsomely assembled; the disks assume deepening hues of green, while each disk sleeve is decorated with melodies and/or extracts from contemporary documents – the Avertissement or the letter which Marais wrote to the Secretary of the Royal Household in which he diplomatically dedicated his first collection to Lully. The extensive booklet (in English, French and German), which is available online, presents engaging essays by Jérôme Lejeune (the artistic director of Ricerar who founded the label in 1980) and François Joubert-Caillet himself.
As Lejeune notes at the close of his commentary, this series is ‘to be continued …’; one might add, ‘and eagerly anticipated’.
Claire Seymour



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