I know I’m not the only person who first encountered the music of Marin Marais and his mysterious teacher Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe in the 1991 Gerard Depardieux film Touts Les Matins du Monde. Lisa Terry, a modern-day master of the viola da gamba, or viol, clearly knows this, mentioning the movie as she introduced some of the music she and lutenist Richard Stone played for an appreciative if somewhat (literally) chilly wintertime audience at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City on Saturday.
In another incarnation, Terry is one-quarter of the early-music ensemble Parthenia, a consort of viols that I’ve seen several times. But it’s also nice to hear the viola da gamba in an even more exposed setting. At first glance the instrument looks like a small cello. But look again: It has no leg to stand on, it’s bowed underhand, and it has not four, not six, but seven strings.
This viol doesn’t have the resonance or power of modern string instruments like cellos and violins, but its rich, mournful tone and the gorgeous music written for it by Sainte-Colombe, Marais, Lully and other French composers of the 17th and early 18th centuries have not only kept it in the musical pantheon but gained it something of a modern-day renaissance today, including among modern composers.
The theorbo, a long, strange-looking lute, also lacks the depth of sound of what we might think of its modern-day analogue, the acoustic guitar. But Stone, director and co-founder of Philadelphia’s Tempesta di Mare, knows his instrument through and through, its capabilities and limitations, and played with feeling to match his dexterity. The two musicians achieved a near-perfect balance of volume and tone in the suites by Marais that occupied most of the program.
By himself Stone delivered a beautiful, moody piece by François Couperin called “Les Sylvains,” arranged for theorbo solo by another composer of the time, Robert de Visée. Here were the theorbo’s two sets of strings on full display, the shorter set for plucked melodies and the much long set for bass notes. (Progressive-rock and metal fans, take note: Here is the more sober precursor of those ridiculous double-necked six-string/twelve-string and guitar/bass hybrids.)
Equally effectively, Terry soloed on two haunting pieces for solo viol by Sainte-Colombe, whose music always has an air of melancholy mystery and sometimes a wandering, stream-of-consciousness feel.
Marais’ work, by contrast, is more structured. Students of Bach will recognize the types of dance-based pieces that comprise his Suites. The Suite in B minor from Pieces de viole, Book 2 (1701) includes a playfully sophisticated Allemande, a serpentine Courante, and a closing Menuet whose basso continuo accompaniment (realized on the theorbo) becomes real counterpoint at times. The decisive-sounding Polonoise movement of Marais’ Pieces in D Minor may not be suggestive of Chopin’s similarly named piano works. But the “Cloches ou Carillon” firmly evokes the church bells and chimes of its title.
Slow and sorrowful, the lovely “Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully” is never soporific of downhearted, moving in both senses of the word, with melismas, grace notes and double stops. The Suite in G major features a lighthearted Gigue, a haunting “Sarabande la désolée,” and an intricate Courante that sounds like more than two instruments are playing.
The G major Suite‘s Chaconne closed the concert with a final demonstration of the musicians’ skill at drawing forth the utterly recognizable emotions in this ancient music. A Chaconne is a simple chord pattern repeated over and over, with a long sequence of varied melodies and motifs played (sometimes improvised) over it. (Pachelbel’s Canon is really a Chaconne.) Here, as throughout the concert, Terry and Stone merged their sounds and “breathed” together in perfect balance. In highly motile and complex movements like this one the pair created a full sound that suggested a larger ensemble. The Chaconne brought the concert to a close with dramatic, quaking final strains. It isn’t only on screen that Marais, Sainte-Colombe and their contemporaries live on.