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GRAMOPHONE ( 04 / 2018)
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Julie Anne Sadie

If you’re thinking ‘ah, just another recording of French viol pieces’, think again. You couldn’t be more wrong. This recording by Florence Bolton and theorbist Benjamin Perrot with members of their ensemble La Rêveuse breaks new ground. The challenges of playing the seven-string bass viol, and the French repertoire in particular, are well known, but Marais himself would have immediately recognised and appreciated Florence Bolton’s artistry and commitment to his music. These are sublimely unfettered performances, perfectly judged and yet remarkably improvisatory in spirit. Her sense of timing is ravishing, her close musical rapport with Perrot and colleagues is magical and so it’s hardly surprising that the French Ministry of Culture has associated La Réveuse with this year’s Année européenne du patrimoine culturel.

The choice of pièces from the fourth (1717) and fifth (1725) books, both fresh and familiar, produces a coherent, cumulative impression of artistic maturity.

In the booklet note, Bolton remarks on Marais’s exceptional sensitivity to both the ‘colour of sound’ and different tonalities: ‘His palette, fairly clear-cut in his first books, moves in the last two towards more blended tones, close in spirit to the tonality of the Fêtes galantes of Watteau.’

Lively tracks such as ‘Le jeu du volant’ (shuttlecock), ‘Fête champêtres’, ‘La Biscayenne’ and ‘La Provençale’ conjure a spirit of the out-of-doors, while others – the hauntingly beautiful rondeaux in particular (tracks 4, 5, 9 and 16) evoke the nostalgic aspects of Watteau’s images. Among the many rarely heard delights are ‘La Paraza’ (in which the player is given the opportunity to create his or her own version with a series of options) and ‘Le Tact’, involving virtuoso alternation of left-hand pizzicato and bowed notes, which is enchanting in spite of its technical wizardry.

Listeners will be transfixed by the sublime performances of the F sharp ‘Badinage’ and ‘La Rêveuse’, popularised in the 1990s by Jordi Savall’s performances in the film Tous les matins du monde. These new interpretations open our ears to astonishing aural landscapes, and even glimpses of the inner genius of Marin Marais.

If, alas, no mention of Marais and Couperin playing together survives, the classical perfection of their music offers ample evidence of shared values. Perrot’s arrangements of two much-loved Couperin pieces exquisitely point this up and make one wonder whether Marais might ever have entertained himself and his patrons with his own versions for the viol.

This exceptional recording will surely rank among my contenders for recording of the year. Personally, I feel as though I’ve visited Marais’s studio and heard the sounds from his window, and these are experiences I shall treasure.

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