Le Sieur de Machy: Pieces de Violle (1685) – Shaun Ng – A415 Music 006 – 2022: ****½
A story has it that once upon a time a group of Italian musicians came to the court of the Sun King. They were ushered in for the Monarch’s nightly entertainment and proceeded to do their thing. They fiddled like mad, precise, energetic, metronomically driven, a magnificent display of daring and ingenious devices. The King’s ears were pinned back, his eyes goggled. He did not know whether he should hire them on the spot or have them all beaten. After one allegro furioso too many, he turned to his musical counselor and announced his verdict: “They are better than us, and they have more beautiful instruments, but send them away and bring back our musicians.” Even if the story is apocryphal, it does make sense of one divergence in the Italian and the French Baroque traditions. The Italians went in for fancy fiddling, punchy fast tempos and melodic assertion. In contrast, the French Courtly tradition favored “taste,” melodic understatement and refinement played on the softer lute, the viols, the harpsichord and the flute. By the time of Couperin and certainly in the robust stage music of Rameau these distinctions dissolve, but for a full century the French Court invented its own language based on aesthetic notions of refinement, the subtleties of dance rhythms, a freer pulse, and the avoidance of overstatement in melody.
This style (as my Latin teacher taught me: “All style is just a moment in the evolution of a language”) was especially well suited for solo instruments, and here the French Court musicians and emulous nobles created something new: the lute or theorbo suite, (Ennemond Gaultier represents a high point here), the harpsichord suite (Chambonnieres) the suites for one or two viols, Sainte. Colombe and Marais. This shared idiom contributed to the strong identity of French music for more than a century. Meanwhile, the instrument builders had to catch up to their peers in Italy; perhaps the Sun King could brush aside Italian virtuosity, but there was an obvious need for instruments equal to the music which Gaultier called “the Rhetoric of the Gods.” Indeed, French and Flemish instrument-making enjoyed a golden century. These instruments still provide the models for the Early Music of today. Either as copies (as in this recording) or restored originals.
Among enthusiasts of Early Music, the instrumental ideal plays a large role. If you are going to play music on a harpsichord or lute , it matters hugely what kind of instrument it is. Not just in terms of historic authenticity but also in quality. As for string instruments, it is not enough just to use a funny looking bow and play on gut strings without vibrato. The design of the instrument, its voice, its particular resonance and range of expression, makes all the difference.
In the recording at hand, we are fortunate to encounter a rare repertory from the French Baroque played on a superior instrument (a copy of a 1683 Viola da Gamba by Collichon made by Francis Beaulieu) by a first rate musician named Shaun Ng who is based in Australia but has extensive experience with elite Early Music ensembles in Europe and the United States.
For those unfamiliar with the viol (or viola da gamba) it is worth making a couple of points. First, it is an extremely difficult instrument to play in terms of intonation. If you have ever heard an amateur viol consort having a go at music that is over their heads, you will have experienced a species of lugubrious affliction. Mr Ng belongs however to the level of the finest players–Paolo Pandolfo, Phillippe Pierlot. Jordi Savall, Margaret Little–who have tamed this instrument and turned its unwieldy sonority to advantage. A second thing to know is that the viol family is only a distant cousin of the cello; You will notice the six strings on this particular instrument as well as the frets. It is more directly related to the bass, whose lineage, as a former bass player, I like. However, it is more than just prejudice that makes me think that newcomers to this music might appreciate the sound of this instrument. There is something especially gratifying about the lowest register of the bass viol. As Mr Ng has stated in an interview the viol is distinct from the cello in that “ itis the closest instrument to the human voice. Its range is vast, its top string is a fourth above the cello’s whereas its bottom string is a third below the cello’s lowest string. Despite being a bass instrument, its thinner gut strings allows the instrument to produce more overtones, which gives the viol its bright and rich sound”.
You will often recognize members of the viol family by the elaborate head scroll. This like the rosette in the lute is a signature of the maker as well as an aesthetic assertion.
Here is the instrument by Francis Beaulieu (Montreal 2022)
The amount of craft and wisdom that goes into making an instrument like this is staggering. It includes extensive research into historical building traditions, experimentation with materials and close collaboration with the player. We are fortunate to live at a time when these craft traditions have been rediscovered.
Le Sieur de Machy was a violist and composer attached to the court at the end of the 17th Century. His was the distinction of being the first to publish solo suites for his instrument. Interestingly they were written in both standard notation and tablature. The individual movements of the suites follow the older order of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte and Menuet. The Preludes stand apart as they were typically “unmeasured.” The player was allowed, indeed encouraged, to play them freely in both time and phrasing.
The feeling of spontaneity and improvisation was the desired effect. At the same time, the Prelude was summoning of the instrument’s capacities in preparation for the more rhythmically prescribed pieces to come.
The four suites are split between major and minor keys in G and D, keys best suited to the tuning of the instrument. The individual movements differ from one another in rhythmically subtle ways rather more than in emotional heat. In general, there prevails an atmosphere of calm or sensual delectation moderated by wistful contemplation. The music does not especially assert itself or busy itself with arrival or departure. And yet it is (at least to this listener) surprisingly compelling. The deep voice and rich pearly overtones of this marvelous instrument are satisfying enough along with the teasing out of harmonic delicacies, and melodic gestures. Striking through is the exactness of intonation maintained by Mr. Ng. The double stop on a bass viol is a perilous business, but here we have fabulous growls, rich chords, languishing sighs while never a caterwaul or screech.
Another feature that the artist has pointed out about this composer was his refined use of ornamentation. He has given us some insight into this feature in a recent interview:
“The main attraction of De Machy’s music is his use of ornamentation. Ornamentation is the use of extra notes and techniques on the viol that create a more varied and interesting sound. Some writers of the time compare ornamentation with seasoning used in cooking, where just the right amount is added to give a dish its flavor. In the case of music, ornamentation can give a piece of music its character and make it more appealing to the listener. This unique and precise style of ornamentation was particular to De Machy, demonstrating one of the musical styles that emerged during the time, sowing the seeds for future development in the viol music world.”
Finally he rhythm of these pieces is one of the nuances involving real skill. The music simultaneously features a swaying dotted rhythm while also seeming to float outside of time. The best lute players carry this off with distinction. (I was not surprised that Mr. Ng has also made a serious study of the lute) On the viol it is even harder to find that balance. Ng achieves this with confidence.
This release should be heartily welcomed by insiders to the French Baroque tradition, but I hope it will attract attention to those who are looking for something beyond the familiar horizons. I hope that Mr. Ng will continue to explore this musical direction. Future issues will benefit greatly by the addition of liner notes, something that is missing here. But other than that I can heartily endorse this recording.
More Information can be found through A 415 Music, Shaun Ng: