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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer :
Mark Seow

I adore this recording. Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexandre Tharaud bring us the music of Marin Marais on cello and a Yamaha concert grand, which many will label blasphemy. Lovely booklet notes set out the stakes: Queyras describes the 'inherent paradox' of their transcription project, noting the unique character of Marais's music afforded by the colour of the viola da gamba. Yet both jumped at the chance to imbue Marais with 'a different kind of depth'. In a way that evokes Busoni's Bach transcriptions, Queyras and Tharaud have for the most part opted for intensity and unpredictability. There's a sense that they've catapulted Marais to the high-altitude planes of Bogot, leaving the music to soak up aguardiente and the sway of cumbia before bringing it back to Paris.

For those still unsure, the Couplets des Folies d'Espagne is a good litmus test. The theme is luxuriously shaped by Queyras, and indeed the improvisatory sense of contour is one of the most attractive qualities of his playing. Even with such generous melodic shaping, I'm drawn to the so-called accompaniment. Tharaud's volatility is utterly tantalising: rhythms ripple across the keyboard, scurry, and then fly like sparks. In later variations, Tharaud slaps at the keys in menacing syncopation, growling at his partner in terse jabs. It's fabulous. And then, in the space of a bar line, Tharaud shifts from snarling aggression to the slinkiness of adultery.

This slipperiness between different feelings plays out most wonderfully in two particular corners. Firstly, the turn to Gravement in the Sonate la Marsienne: Queyras and Tharaud move from frothy delight to longing song. My other favourite moment is between the devastatingly sad ending of La Rveuse and the immediate understated elegance of the Fantaisie.

Also featured is Marais's famous Le tableau de l'operation de la taille - a programmatic work depicting the surgical removal of bladder stones from a trembling patient bound in silk. The libretto is not for the fainthearted - 'Icy se fait l'incision ... Ecoulement du sang'! - and while the declamation is excellent, there's something a little silly about the instrumentation at the movement's climax. Frankensteinish horror is, perhaps, the more natural territory of a harpsichord.


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