Wednesday 14 July 2021

Music to be heard at close quarters in a private chamber: Concerts à deux violes esgales from Sainte-Colombe and Marais

A deux violes esgales - Sainte-Colombe, Marais; Myriam Rignol, Mathilde Vialle; Chateau de Versailles Spectacles

A deux violes esgales
- Sainte-Colombe, Marais; Myriam Rignol, Mathilde Vialle; Chateau de Versailles Spectacles

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A recital of music by two of the great 17th century viola da gamba virtuosos which highlights the way duos for two equal viols developed into solos with basso continuo

Jean de Sainte-Colombe produced at least 67 Concerts à deux violes esgales, works for two equal violas da gamba without any basso continuo. This new recital from gambists Myriam Rignol and Mathilde Vialle on the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles label's Collection la chambre de Rois series takes us from Sainte-Colombe's duos, through those of his pupil Marin Marais to demonstrate how the writing for two equal viols developed into something closer to the trio sonata with one viol taking the bass line and a supporting continuo instrument, Thibaut Roussel (theorbo and baroque guitar) and Julien Wolfs (harpsichord).

Music apart, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe remains something of a mystery. Musicologists have finally agreed on his Christian name (Jean) and have garnered a few other facts about him, but his presence in the written record is fascinatingly sparse.

He was probably a Huguenot, which perhaps explains the family's reluctance to participate in the more worldly activities at court, but he did seem to have a family with whom he performed. Sainte-Colombe's most famous pupil was, of course, Marin Marais who left far more of a paper trail. He joined the Academie Royale de Musique under Lully, and became a viol player in the Music of the King's Chamber, a group which not only played for the King privately but which performed in all the non-sacred music at court. Of course, Marais also wrote operas, but the focus of this disc is his music for viola da gamba.

The idea behind this music is private, intimate performance. The duos of Sainte-Colombe are real virtuoso stuff, using the full range of the instrument (almost five octaves) as well as a wide range of colours and innovative ornaments, we should imagine this music perhaps occasionally played by talented aristocratic amateurs but also by professionals such as Sainte-Colombe and Marais for the intimate delectation of the few. There is something about the equality of the two parts, the sense of a dialogue, which is intriguing here; this is music to be heard at close quarters in a private chamber.

Marin Marais published his pieces for one and two violas da gamba in 1686, a collection of 72 solos and 17 pieces duos. Then in 1689, Marais published the basso continuo part to the collection. The delay, he explained, was due to the care taken when notating the part. From his other comments about the publication, it seems that many of the pieces were circulating long before 1686 and that Marais used them for teaching purposes. 

Marais' second book for viola da gamba, published in 1701, is clearly for solo instrument with basso continuo, but Marais still gives the bass instrument a role as part of the dialogue. To highlight the way they feel this is a development from the equal voice works,  Rignol and Vialle play two suites from Marais' 1686 publication, the first in D minor without basso continuo, the second in G major with basso continuo. Rignol and Vialle perform the famous Couplets de Folies from Maria's 1701 publication in a version where the two players take it in turns to play the bass part, thus increasing the sense of dialogue.

There are two extra pieces on the disc by two of Marais' contemporaries, which serve both as punctuation points and to showcase the talents of the basso continuo group, a work by Etienne Lemoyne who was theorbo player for the Music of the King's Chamber, and a work by Louis Marchand, organist at the Royal Chapel.

There is a sense of civilised understatement to this music, and a delight in the sense of dialogue of two equals. The forms are fascinatingly free, Sainte-Colombe's duos are of great variety and certainly not of fixed form, and Marais seems to keep this. It is only with the final work on the disc, the substantial Couplets de Folies that we encounter anything like showy virtuosity. This was music for true amateurs, people who could understand and appreciate the subtleties of sophisticated viola da gamba playing.

It is clear that Rignol and Vialle derive great enjoyment and satisfaction from this music, you feel their sense of dialogue as two equals and the balance of their performances. My only complaint is that the disc feels too short and I only wish that we could have had more. One other minor caveat, whilst the disc is on the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles label and whilst the disc includes images of the performers in the chateau, the recording itself was not made there but at the College Victor Hugo de Besancon!

Jean de Sainte-Colombe (c1640-1700) - Concert LX: Les Majestueux
Jean de Sainte-Colombe - Concert XLIV: Tombeau Les Regrets
Jean de Sainte-Colombe - Concert XXI: Le Villageois
Marin Marais (1656-1728) - Suite in D minor for two violas da gamba
Etienne Lemoyne (active 1680-1723) - Prelude in G
Marin Marais - Suite in G major for two violas da gamba and basso continuo
Louis Marchand (1669-1732) - Prelude in D
Marin Marais - Couplets de Folies
Myriam Rignol (viola da gamba)
Mathilde Vialle (viola da gamba)
Thibaut Roussel (theorbo, baroque guitar)
Julien Wolfs (harpsichord)
Recorded 10-14 June 2020, Salle des Actes, College Victor Hugo de Besancon
Chateau de Versailles Spectacles CVS043 1CD [79:39]

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