For the week following Halloween it was fitting to have a concert entitled “La Mascarade” featuring French Baroque and Rococo music inspired by characters from masked ballets and the Commedia dell’arte. Duo Maresienne, comprised of gambist Carol Lewis and lutenist Olav Chris Henriksen, presented the program Friday, November 4, in the intimate venue of Lindsay Chapel at First Church, Cambridge. In a program of pieces largely by composers unknown to non-specialists, this experienced duo brought the music to life with a generous measure of that sometimes elusive commodity, le bon goût (a phrase whose literal translation, “good taste,” is only approximate in its musical application). During the first half Lewis and Henriksen played bass viol and theorbo respectively; in the second they switched to pardessus de viole (soprano viol) and Baroque guitar.
We commenced with four pieces for bass viol and theorbo by the mysterious Louis Caix d’Hervelois, who was regarded in the eighteenth century as the third member, with Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray, of the “Empire de la Viole.” The declamatory opening chords of the Prélude demonstrated the surprising amount of reverberation in what is, after all, a fairly small space. The duo took full advantage of this acoustic which particularly favored the wonderfully deep bass notes of Henriksen’s theorbo. The Sarabande was a special highlight, beautiful and stately; Lewis’s many double stops were silken, and her “bridges” between phrases (almost miniature cadenzas), whether indicated on the printed page or not, sounded like spontaneous ornamentation by an inspired player. Given the otherwise fine playing of the duo, it was a pity that the four pieces were slightly marred by moments of ill-tuning from time to time.
Robert de Visée was an accomplished lutenist who enjoyed the special distinction of being invited sometimes to entertain King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) in his private quarters. Henriksen favored us with three of de Visée’s pieces — Prélude, La Mascarade, and Chaconne — played without pause. The latter two were originally written for chamber ensemble; arranging pre-existing music for different combinations was commonplace at the time, and generally a listener would be none the wiser. These pieces, while making extensive use of the theorbo’s rich baritone register, contained two-voice and even some three-voice polyphony which Henriksen rendered with assurance, clarity and seductive sound.
At least a generation older than the other Baroque composers on the program, Jean de Sainte-Colombe was a very influential viol player and composer. Little is known about him, but he is credited with introducing over-spun strings and adding a seventh string (low A) to the bass viol. One of the four solo viol pieces played, Pianelle (a term whose meaning is obscure), was an enjoyably jaunty “spring dance” in the Edvard Grieg sense, i.e., “spring” as a verb, not the season. The concluding Gigue was something of a display piece, played here with panache and a wide dynamic range. Even though Lewis’s stylish rubato made it rhythmically a bit too free for actual dancing (which was probably not the composer’s intention at any rate), in her hands there was no doubt about its terpsichorean inspiration.
The first half ended with duo music by the most famous of viol composers, Marin Marais: three pieces selected from a Suite in a Foreign Taste (d’un goût étranger, amusingly given by the program notes as “in a strange taste”). The opening Allemande la Singulière was indeed singular for being an allemande in triple meter. La Rêveuse (the dreamer) was not enjoying an altogether pleasant dream, as the colorful music was characterized by many stops and starts through which the duo’s ensemble remained exemplary. Those expecting L’Arabesque to be languorous and sensual (a Baroque ancestor of Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Coffee Dance”) were surprised by an extroverted, even vigorous, character piece of bright, sunny mood, played with stirring élan.
After intermission Lewis switched to the pardessus de viole, and Henriksen remained on the theorbo for one more piece. The pardessus visually resembles the violin but is held between the legs and bowed in the same manner as its larger viol siblings. In the Baroque and Rococo periods, playing the violin was considered quite unladylike, and consequently the pardessus was popular with “ladies of quality.” Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Second Sonata, despite its name, was a standard dance suite of four movements. A highlight was the Rondeau, Gracieusement which featured a more prominent theorbo part than those heard earlier, at times approaching a melodic equal partnership with the viol. The final Gigue was elegant rather than rollicking. Lewis gave us some nicely contrasted articulations, and the duo concluded the work with a beautifully hushed echo of the last phrase.
Henriksen then brought out a Baroque guitar for the rest of the program, starting with several solo pieces by the gifted guitarist/composer Giacomo Merchi, a native Neapolitan who settled in Paris. Naples being then part of Spain, a discernible Spanish influence permeated these works. The Prélude ou Caprice, for instance, featured melodies in octaves with arpeggiated accompaniments, while the energetic Menuet I, II was punctuated at unpredictable times by dramatically accented “strums” (excuse my layman’s term) that are a hallmark of flamenco style. Henriksen was a seasoned guide in this “multilingual” music.
Next came three character pieces by Charles Dollé. Le Breton was translated in the notes as “the headstrong,” though I can find no other meaning in my French dictionary than Breton — perhaps a bit of period ethnic stereotyping? In any case, the duo’s robust performance bore out the translated title, boldly charging ahead. La Tissier (the spinning-wheel) did not have the expected moto perpetuo (Schubert’s famous song, Gretchen am Spinnrade, being the classic example); instead it resembled a courtly dance in triple time. La Victoire was earthier, with many phrases ending with emphatic double stops on the pardessus in the manner of foot stomps. The musicians conveyed the fun of non-intellectual character painting.
Rounding off the program was Sonata 6a en forme de scène by Pierre Jean Porro, a work of six short movements written soon after the French Revolution. In the category of “storm and stress” which bridged the late Rococo/Classical and early Romantic periods, this striking piece mimics an operatic scena with its unforeseen mood shifts and dramatically disjointed chords evoking recitative. The third movement (Grazioso) was akin to a dignified and graceful aria. Though the fourth movement was marked Allegro furioso presto, I didn’t hear anything recognizably furioso until near the end of the sonata, but better late than never! The musicians gave us a thrilling conclusion.
Duo Maresienne gave vivid realizations of this esoteric but red-blooded and colorful repertoire. One was grateful as well for their spoken remarks that complemented the printed program notes well, both being informative and interesting to the average listener.