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The idea of an extended set of pieces for viola da gamba, accompanied by harpsichord and theorbo, may not seem immediately attractive; and there is indeed one slight disadvantage. The bass viola, the equivalent of the modern cello, appears to specialize in the more sombre, or at least more elegiac moods. Comparing these pieces with Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello, which is the analogy that springs most immediately to mind, the gaiety of Bach's faster movements (and this from a composer from whom one expects seriousness) seems to have no equivalent. The viola da gamba's tone is essentially a pastel shade, even though, like the cello, it has a combination of tenor and bass registers.
This said, within its limitations, the viol music of Marin Marais is distinctly attractive. At least in his Second Book of Pieces (reading a standard article on his music, it seems that it is not always so), the instrumental style is relatively simple and not overburdened with the ornaments which can make French baroque music over-fussy and artificial. The set of variations Folies d'Espagne is nearer to Corelli or even Handel than, say, the great B minor Chaconne of Couperin, less subtle perhaps but with more rhythmic drive. And the pick of the works is undoubtedly the lament for Marais's former superior in the French court band, Lully, a splendidly moving piece, which gains part of its power from gruff chords which break into elegant melody. .
Jordi Savall is an excellent player, who draws a beautiful sound
from, presumably, a beautiful instrument. He is clearly up to the technical
demands of the music, which are surely considerable. He can wrest a full tone
from the lower registers and a sweet one from the tenor range. If I have a
complaint, it is that in dances he tends to give more prominence to the
unaccented notes than to the first beat of the bar, which sometimes makes the
dances seem lacking in springiness-but no doubt I shall be told that this is the
nature of the instrument, or music, or both. His continuo team are good, also,
though the recording occasionally allows them to obscure the gamba's bass notes;
added to which, the recording has been balanced obviously close, and there is
something suspiciously like the drawing of breath on the part of one or other of
the players. No matter, this is an enjoyable disc, and quite worth buying for
the "Tombeau pour Monsieur Lully" - the last piece in the B minor Suite-alone.