Sainte-Colombe: Pièces de Viole / Pandolfo, Boysen

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Just once in a while?a long while?a disc will come along to make one curse the all-too-easy use of superlatives to which our fatuous age...

Just once in a while?a long while?a disc will come along to make one curse the all-too-easy use of superlatives to which our fatuous age is devoted. We curse their misuse because it deprives us of the ability to describe that which is truly exemplary, rare cases where the use of a word such as ?great? is not just an idle, meaningless throwaway. This is just such a recording, and if, for reasons I?ll come to later, overall it falls minimally short of the ultimate accolade, I can say without hesitation that Paolo Pandolfo is an extraordinary master who has here produced some of the greatest viol-playing I?ve ever heard. Why? Quite simply because he combines innate musicianship with a flawless technique that allows him to explore a quite extraordinary range of sonority and nuance that are in my experience unequalled among his fellow gambists. Throughout the 28 tracks on this CD, there is not one moment of ugliness, not the faintest suspicion of less than perfect intonation, while the sheer lyrical beauty Pandolfo draws from his instrument is at times breathtaking. But, for the moment, enough of panegyrics. Regular readers will know well enough that this writer is no hero worshipper of artists, rather one who views them as a conduit through which to attempt to seek the truth about music.

The truth about the mysterious Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe himself is, to say the least, somewhat elusive. Despite considerable scholarly activity, no biographical facts have yet emerged about a figure who was celebrated by both contemporary and successor as not only the greatest gambist of his day, but also the founder of an advanced school of performers that found its greatest exponent in Sainte-Colombe?s pupil, Marin Marais. But Monsieur was controversial as well as celebrated, unwittingly finding himself at the center of an angry polemical argument in which he took no part. At the heart of this debate was a central issue. Was the gamba primarily a lyrical instrument whose performers should above all seek closely to emulate the human voice, or was it rather an instrument that should follow in the footsteps of the lute and theorbo and express itself through harmony?

This divergence of opinion is brilliantly examined, using contemporary sources, in the long booklet essay by Pierre Jaquier, which shows how much Sainte-Colombe was, above all, revered for his ability to play in a manner that could draw comparison with the finest singers. Much of his music reflects this love of cantabile, a piece such as the second Sarabande from the G-Major pieces (the suites are, of course, Pandolfo?s own choice arranged by key), which has all the melodic distinction and simplicity of an air by Michel Lambert. This, interestingly, is one of the few pieces in which the manuscript (the Panmure MS) includes a part for continuo bass, but in an ancillary note, Pandolfo argues that many of the other pieces imply the use of continuo, which has been added in a number of cases where he feels the gamba part includes insufficient harmonic information. This may be so, and in some instances works well, especially given Thomas Boysen?s fine theorbo-playing. Where I do part company with the performers is in the occasional employment of the Baroque guitar to supply the continuo, as in the Chaconne that concludes the Suite in C. Here, and in several other instances, its tangy, percussive character sounds anachronistic beside the gamba, exuberant though the piece may be.

Exuberance is not a quality that those familiar only with the secretive, withdrawn, and hermit-like Sainte-Colombe portrayed in the film Tous les matins du monde will associate with the composer, but, as Pandolfo justly observes, that is an image contradicted by much of the music. True, we do from time to time meet a wistful, introverted composer, as in the D-Minor Sarabande, where the gambist draws us into an intimate web of sound, while at the same time demanding admiration for some perfectly placed and executed trills. But there is, too, nobility in the shape of the G-Major Allemande, fragile lightness and courtly elegance (the G-Major Minuet), and the evocation of a distant folk dance heard in an idealized, Poussinesque landscape (the Minuet in D), here cleverly succeeded by the downright bucolic in ?Vielle,? with its drone bass.

As already made abundantly clear, these are performances that call for superlatives. The disc is not only a showcase for Pandolfo?s magical, supremely rewarding virtuosity, but, much more important, one that casts fresh and indispensable new light on one of the great instrumental composers of the 17th century. As such, it demands to be added to the collection of everyone who values music-making of peerless quality.

FANFARE: Brian Robins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 03, 2005

  • UPC: 8424562204089

  • Catalog Number: GCD920408

  • Label: Glossa

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Jean de Sainte-Colombe

  • Performer: Thomas Boysen