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Of Angels and Devils

May 8, 2007

In his annual pilgrimage to the First Congregational Church in Berkeley last weekend, gambist extraordinaire Jordi Savall showed Berkeley a different side from his appearances of late. Friday night's Cal Performances program, titled "Marin Maris and Antoine Forqueray: L'Ange et le Diable," highlighted works by the two most famous viol players of the French Baroque. Minus the big band, and accompanied only by harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and lutenist/guitarist Xavier Diaz-Latorre, the audience had the opportunity to experience the more intimate aspects of Savall's art.
Yet a number of factors worked against the program's enjoyment. Unfortunately, First Congo (as we call it here in Berkeley) is not the place for intimate concerts. Although the church has enough room for Savall's many supporters, the distance and acoustic did him and them no good in the end. The musicians were placed on risers on a stage that is already elevated. The decision increased the visibility of the musicians, but it also created a sense of divide that is not ideal for music of such small scale.

And from the first notes, it was apparent that the acoustic was not going to be sympathetic to the viol. First Congregational is a space that favors high pitches. Higher registers of the plucked strings were overly audible, whereas the rich middle areas of the viol turned to mud. The fact that Savall had chosen to play at low "French" pitch (A = 392 Hz), an established choice for the repertoire on the program, perhaps made the audibility problem even worse.

For most of the first half of the concert, which was devoted to the "angel" Marin Marais, I could see Savall's intentions, but I could not hear them. The concert became an exercise in heavenly fantasy, and this despite my seat in a prime location.

Still, the concert had its lovely moments. Savall seemed to hit his stride when he played a clever sequence of Marais' Suite d'un goût Etranger (Suite in a strange taste). What is "strange" about the pieces in this suite are not only the references to foreign lands (in "Marche tartare" or "L'Ameriquaine"), but their arrangement in keys that ascend by half steps. Savall's choices took the audience from E-flat major to G major, making stops everywhere in between. The shocking shift from E-flat major to E minor was particularly effective, as the group played with virtually no break.

Savall also included one of his "greatest hits" from the film Tous les matins du monde, the beautiful rondeau La Reveuse (The Dreamer). I just wish I could have heard all of his subtlety.
The Devil Comes Down to Berkeley
Perhaps someone mentioned the problems at the intermission, because the second half was suddenly much louder. It may have been partly a psychological effect (the house lights were turned down much lower), or it could have been the ensemble's response to the more complicated music of Forqueray, "the devil."

Some confusion exists as to which Forqueray wrote the music featured on the program. The collection, Pièces de viole avec la basse continué, was published in 1747 by Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, and attributed by him to his father, Antoine Forqueray. Both were viol virtuosos. In the preface to the print, Jean-Baptiste admits to adding the figured bass, and thus the harmony, which is indeed much more the style of his generation than of his father's.

Another argument in favor of the son's authorship is the presence of many musical "portraits," of which Savall chose five for this performance. Rather than being friends and associates of Antoine, the persons depicted belonged to the circle of the younger Forqueray. These include the violinist Marella, with whom Jean-Baptiste performed Telemann's "Paris" Quartets in 1745, and the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was within Jean-Baptiste's inner circle of friends.

In some cases these musical portraits can be seen as poking fun at the compositional or performerly quirks of the dedicatee. For example, "La Rameau" takes full advantage of the weird harmonic theories of that composer, including unexpected chromatic and enharmonic shifts. "La Marella" imitates a jerky, bouncing violin bowing trick. It was in this piece that the ensemble really seemed to cut loose for the first time. Diaz-Latorre, in particular, grew much more animated, appearing to enjoy his quickly strummed accents of the broken rhythms.
Swinging With a Straight Face
All three musicians demonstrated a reserve throughout the concert that surprised me, even when each of them performed solos. Diaz-Latorre chose a lovely passacaille by Robert de Visée, one of the foremost theorbists of the period. At times, he seemed to be enjoying himself, but overall I had the impression that his commitment to inégalité (inequality) — that peculiarly French way of swinging notes that look straight — hampered the performance. When every note is equally unequal, they become equal, and sometimes clumsy.

Hantaï chose three pieces by François Couperin, including a portrait of Forqueray and a character piece titled La petite Pince-sans-rire (The little pinch without a smile), which features an ornament the French called a pincé and the Italians labeled an acciaccatura. Pince-sans-rire refers to the fact that the pinching and crushing of the notes should be done with a straight face, something that Hantaï has mastered. In fact, I don't think he smiled once the entire evening.

For those whose taste runs to the completely esoteric end of the viol repertoire, Savall offered his interpretation of a fantaisie by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, the even more enigmatic son of enigmatic viol master Jean de Sainte-Colombe. The extreme introversion Savall offered was appropriate to the dimmed lights of the second half.

But introversion, esotericism, and distance, in fact, colored the entire program. Savall's Marais was like an angel in Dante's perfect heaven — so perfect it is ultimately boring — while Savall's Forqueray, like Dante's Satan, was cold. Perhaps the finest moment of the evening was therefore the encore, when the group left behind the Great French Masters to perform improvisations and variations on an old Breton melody. At last, the masks dropped.

Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist's diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.