For those less versed in Baroque instruments and music, the viol may be something of a mystery, resembling as it does the cello, but with C-holes rather than the f-shaped-holes of other stringed, bridged and fretted instruments, but its round-shouldered, flat-backed body and under-hand (rather than over-hand) bowing are perhaps more obvious at first glance.
Trained in Sydney as a cellist, Jennifer Eriksson subsequently spent three years mastering the viola da gamba (bass viol) in Rotterdam, before returning to Australia where she formed the Marais Project, dedicated to performing the 500-plus works for the viol composed by Frenchman Marin Marais, whose career as viol player and composer straddled the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Apart from this noble (and 80% complete) principle task, the Marais Project also aims to demystify the viol and baroque music in general with side projects performing popular works utilising these archaic but beautiful instruments, perhaps most surprisingly in the performance of Chattanooga Choo Choo, originally requested (tongue in cheek) by master viol maker Reinhard Ossenbrunner for a viol concert in Sydney in 2011, and here recorded using two viola da gambas, snare drum, vocal trio and theorbo – a long-necked, lute-like instrument which is plucked (like a lute) rather than strummed or bowed.
More readily recognisable perhaps are the two Edith Piaf works, Padam Padam and La Vie En Rose, with vocals by Narelle Evans and Belinda Montgomery respectively, who give nothing away to their original performer.
Seventeenth century Catalan composer Juan Arañés Chacoña for four voices and guitar is a boisterous choice that demonstrates the virtuosity of Swedish-born stringed-instrument wunderkind, Tommie Andersson, on his original 1820’s Lacôte classical guitar.
His talent as an arranger is evidenced by his revision of the guitar voice for Schubert’s Ave Maria by Napoléon Coste, a virtuoso guitar player of Schubert’s era.
Perhaps an unusual choice of composer – John Paul Jones, former bass player of rock band Led Zeppelin – is justified by the choice of So ell Encina (Under the oak tree), a work first performed on harp by Andrew Lawrence-King, one of a number of JPJ compositions performed by him over the years.
Interestingly the album features what is believed to be one of the oldest love songs in the English language, Bryd one brere, (Bird on a briar), whose anonymous author composed the tune some time in the 13th Century, here arranged and sung by Mara Kiek, founding member of mediaeval group Synfonye, winners of the Jury prize at Brugge Early Music Festival, accompanied by long-time collaborator Llew Kiek on gittern (a precursor of the lute), and Jennifer Eriksson on viola da gamba.
While only a single work by Marais appears on the disc, the broad and perhaps even esoteric choices of the other composers, especially of the more modern popular works, highlights the adaptability of classical instruments and voices to a broad spectrum of musical works, not necessarily restricted to those normally considered classical.
A triumph of arrangement and a showcase of the talents of its participants, Lady Sings the Viol demonstrates what can be achieved if musicians and performers are willing to challenge sterotypes and push the boundaries of their ‘normal’ performance envelope.
An excellent choice for lovers of world music and the quirky, but equally likely to appeal to lovers of fine voices and baroque instruments, singing and playing beautifully.