La Gracieuse: Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais

La Gracieuse
Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais

Robert Smith
Resonus Classics RES10244. 66’13

“Marais has taken the viol to its highest degree of perfection … he is the first to make known all its extent and beauty”. So wrote Évrard Titon du Tillet (in his 1732 Le parnasse françois) about Marin Marais (1636-1728). This recording explores the depth of that degree of perfection in a series of four Suites. Only one of them is an original Marais Suite, but instead, three of them have been assembled from the 600 or so pieces that make up the Suites contained in Marais’ five volumes of music for viola da gamba and continuo. This practice of selecting individual pieces from Suites was an acceptable practice at the time and has the advantage of allowing us to hear some of the lesser-known pieces.

The four assembled Suites are grouped by key: A major, E minor, G minor, and F# Minor, with a total of 29 individual pieces. The programme notes give what is known of the life of Marais, and some of the background to the often enigmatic titles of his pieces. The delicate title piece, La Gracieuse, appears in the first Suite, in A major. The final F# Minor Suite is the only one that is in the original Marais order, taken from the appendix of the 1689 volume. It opens with a grand Prélude in the style of a Lully overture. It is followed by a traditional suite of dances, without any of the character pieces heard in the earlier Suites.

Robert Smith’s playing is sensitive and well articulation. He is perhaps best in the slower and more melancholic pieces like La Gracieuse and, in the G minor Suite, the Plainte. The delicate conclusion of the final well is particularly effective. He is accompanied by Israel Golani (baroque guitar and theorbo), Joshua Cheatham (viola da gamba), Olivier Fortin (harpsichord) and Adrián Rodríguez Van der Spoel (percussion). The solo viol is prominently recorded, which seems to be the result of some editing, as the photographs of the recording session (in the relatively small Lutherse Kerk in Groningen, The Netherlands) show the musicians grouped closely together on the platform in the centre of the aisle, facing across the short side of the church. The harpsichord sounds particularly distant, giving a slightly false sense of the music as it would be heard in concert.

The only appearance of some rather prominent and boomy percussion at track 11 (Rondeau paysan) comes as a bit of a surprise. Its segue into La Biscayenne, a Tambourin, although cleverly done, is perhaps not the most appropriate drum sound for such a traditionally French pipe and tabor dance.

The formulation of the Suites as collections of individual pieces makes this an attractive addition to the collections of those with many Marais recordings, and is also a good introduction to the range of Marais’ compositions.