La Gracieuse - Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais
It was many years ago in Dartington, the early music haven where the Devon air is infused with the song of Emma Kirkby and the ground is dented by socks in sandals, when I first heard Marin Marais performed on a solo viola da gamba. I thought I had stumbled upon the soundtrack of heaven. Such moments of himmlisches Freudenmahl have since been few and far between, but on hearing Robert Smith and his continuo team on this wonderful disc I was transported to that youthful summer when music was charged with inquisitiveness, friendship, beer, dance and play.
Smith’s playing locks into all these things: he is sympathetic, generous, introspective, romantic, adventurous in timbre – from the melancholic and disturbingly eerie in the Plainte from the Suite in G minor to the stately, then buoyant, then gruff Fugue gaie from the Suite in E minor – and his palette of sounds is enviably characterful. In La Gracieuse, the movement from the Suite in A after which the album is named, affectionate pizzicato opens out into a gorgeous melody in which Smith is expertly supported by his viola da gamba partner Joshua Cheatham (the music is shaped with such psychic tenderness that it is easy to overlook that we are listening to multiple people here joined in harmonic telepathy).
The overall listening experience is well crafted and charts an interesting journey. Marais composed his five livres of pieces for one, two and three bass viols between 1686 and 1725: the Pièces de viole represent a life’s work. Smith does well to curate suites according to key that feel coherent and balanced. We are treated with the vigorous multiple-stopping that is characteristic of Marais’s early style, as well as the sumptuous melodic writing of the later books. The sound, produced by Adam Binks, is excellent.