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A Marais-ge of Color and Music

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/21/2019 -  
Music From the Film Tous les matins du monde:
Jean-Baptiste Lully: Selections from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
Jean de Sainte-Colombe: Concerts à deux violes esgales No. 41 “Le Retour” & No. 44 “Tombeau Les Regrets”
Traditional: Une jeune fillette
Marin Marais: Pièces de viole (Books 3 & 4): Prélude, Menuets, Muzettes, “La Sautillante et Double”, “Les Voix humaines” & “Couplets de folies” – Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont de Paris
Jean-Marie Leclair: Sonata à 3 in D Major, Opus 2, No. 8
François Couperin: Selections from Concerts royaux

Charles Zebley (Flute), Manfredo Kraemer (Violin), Phillippe Pierlot (Bass Viol), Daniel Swenberg (Theorbo), Luca Guglielmi (Harpsichord), Jordi Savall (Director and Viols)

J. Savall in Zankel Hall (© Samuel A. Dog)

More than a monumental figure in music, more than an innovator, discoverer, and unending enthusiast, far far more than a mere “early music” icon, Jordi Savall is also a chameleon.

His frequent New York appearance have him leading a huge Louis XIV-style orchestra. He has come here with an ensemble for Medieval Jewish, Arabic, and Berber music. His concerts here can encompass the earliest religious motets to the (relatively) latest Elizabethan madrigals. I remember especially the eclectic and humanistic “The Routes of Slavery”, which used the music of four continents and four centuries.

And whatever the ensemble, Mr. Savall’s personality transcends the rarity of the selections or unfamiliarity.

Last night, with two gauntlets to run, Mr. Savall and his five-person Concert des Nations almost didn’t overcome those challenges. First, his music had originally be performed for that eternally beautiful French film with Gérard Depardieu, Tous les matins du monde (“All the mornings of the world”). One can’t quite imagine a Hollywood agent pushing the biography of an obscure 17th Century violist/composer. But so compelling was Gérard Depardieu as Marin Marais and so gorgeous the settings, and so magnificent the music–performed, of course by Mr. Savall–that it glittered like a Marie-Antoinette’s diamond necklace.

Listening to the music by itself, one longed for the visuals.

Second was that last night’s ensemble accented the darker sounds. One could not possibly question Mr. Savall’s legerdemain (more on that later), or the viol technique or Phillippe Pierlot’s equally adept bass viol. Daniel Swenberg was a last-minute substitute for the ailing Rolf Lislevand, but his bass plucking seemed more than adequate.When Mr. Savall included violin and transverse flute as well as harpsichord, they added an essential brightness to the evening.

What were the reasons that these so-perfect early Baroque works started and ended with composer who had grisly deaths? We all know how the acerbic Lully, beating his stick to keep time, stabbed himself, dying of gangrene. But what about that equally renowned Jean-Marie Leclair? He was knifed to death, probably by a murderer hired by his wife. Though the mystery was never solved.

Enough of that. All too few of Lully’s pieces from Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme began the concert last night, and the six instruments well duplicated the mock-regal music of the Ottomans. (Just as Beethoven did a one and a half century later in the Ninth Symphony). Add to that more ballet music, and it seemed like our sextet would present a gala evening.

The final Leclair Sonata for Three Instruments finished it with equal aplomb, with colors from flute and violin, along with resplendent viol playing by Mr. Savall.

Yet, for those not entirely au courant, or at least not in sympathy with this age, some of the following works seemed, at first hearing bare, almost (I hate to say it) drab. For Jean de Sainte-Colombe’s selections from Concert for two viols, one heard two dark instruments (Messrs Savall and Pierlot), initially tuning up, and then working into gloomy colors lightened only by the perfect timing, the subtle two-finger vibratos, the lowest strings. These were almost improvisatory, though later in the program, we heard a funereal, virtually saturnine Tombeau Les Regrets from the same composer.

(It goes without saying that until Mr. Savall “uncovered” Sainte-Colombe for the film, virtually nothing was known about the composer or his music, save that he had been a teacher of Marin Marais.)

The folksong Une jeune fillette missed something essential. Notably the haunting voice of Mr. Savall’s late wife, Montserrat Figueras. Possibly in her memory, this spare instrumental piece was performed here.

M. Kraemer, C. Zebley, J. Savall, D. Swenberg, L. Guglielmi, P. Pierlot (© Samuel A. Dog)

One can understand why Marais was chosen for such a movie, why that one-time swashbuckling Gérard Depardieu was ready to play the composer.

The centerpieces had to have been the music of Marin Marais himself, all from the 25-year-old film. The most fascinating works were of program music, like his contemporaries, Rameau and Couperin. Alas (or hélas), Mr. Savall did not play Marais’ “Bladder-Stone Operation”, which included, Richard Strauss style, “The Patient is Boundeth Up” and “The Patient Screameth”, but he did play a series of joyful dances here.

The final Marais pieces here were more than elegant, more than pieces of French Baroque. The Voix humaines was such an emotional outcry that one felt Marais was ready to break through rules of the Baroque. In the following Couplets de folies, some of us felt at home with the variations on La Folia, others were mesmerized by the instrumental work.

What was there about La Folia which has entranced composers from Lully and Corelli to Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff? It is danceable, its melody is singable, its tune has the genius of other great melodies like Greensleeves, and Marin Marais gave the piece the kind of variations which would do well for any century.

I have heard Mr. Savall give La Folia its due with several other composers. This Marais work was the only time when I didn’t miss violin and flute. The four other instruments had such blazing dexterity, the variations would dart abruptly from funereal to festive, the low plucking theorbo gave such a bass frivolity, the rhythms would turn from suave to sepulchral to, in one case, a sparkling flamenco, that one was literally overwhelmed.

In two of the variations, Mr. Savall outdid himself, turning this ageless dance into an Augean Stable of digital challenges. Methinks that Mikhail Pletnev, in his great recording of Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations would have envied such extraordinary musicianship.

Harry Rolnick



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