The Marais project has been going for 15 years. It is dedicated to performing the complete works of Marin Marais and other work written for the viola da gamba. I finally caught up with it recently and Marais was the centrepiece of the program. We were taken into the world of French baroque. The musicians that contribute to this project vary from recital to recital but the constant organising presence is founder Jennifer Erikssson. The ensemble at this performance consisted of two viola da gambas, a baroque violin, a baroque flute and a harpsichord with two singers: soprano Belinda Montgomery and baritone Alexander Knight.
The first and shortest offering Pièces de Viole by Marais was short and sweet: more dessert than savoury appetiser. These pieces, common among French baroque composers, were usually written for bass viol and continuo.
The second piece, Pan et Sirinx by Michel Pignolet de Montclair (1667-1737) added a soprano into the mix. The piece consisted of series of airs and recitative featuring Belinda Montgomery and ensemble both accompanying the singer and playing without vocal contribution. Montgomery’s precise purity of tone was maintained, as was clarity of diction. The work of Fiona Ziegler, baroque violin, and Mikaela Oberg, baroque flute, was notable, most particularly when they were doubling the voice.
The final and longest offering was by Marais himself, Act 2 of his last surviving opera Sémélé featuring the full ensemble and both singers. The instrumental work switched from gentle accompaniment to solo and duet interludes seamlessly with the Fiona Ziegler and Mikaela Oberg to the fore, suitably anchored by the violas da gambas and the harpsichord. Once again Montgomery sang with clarity in a piece demanding a bit more heft than the making of sweet sounds. The declaratory aspects of the dialogues, first between Dorine and Arbate and later between Jupiter and Sémélé, was characterised by some gorgeous baritone singing from Alexander Knight ranging from a rich dark chocolate lower register to an affecting upper range. Knight just doesn’t sing the notes. He performs the work. He is about to journey to Germany. I suspect we will only see and hear him in our midst fleetingly in the future.
The singers’ work was underpinned by integrated work by the instrumentalists, most notably in the concluding section of Sémélé. Despite the classical grandeur of the subject matter of the work the music is characterised by French restraint rather than more overblown efforts of other baroque schools. To my insufficiently educated ear there seems to be continuity in tone and delicacy between French baroque and French music of the late 19th and 20th century.