Marais was one of Lully's most successful protéges. He had a dual career as court viol player to Louis XIV and batteur de mesure (conductor) of the Académie Royale de Musique (later called simply the 'Opéra'). He was a prolific composer of pieces for one, two and three bass viols as well as chamber music and operas.
In 1692 he became the first French composer to publish chamber trios for two trebles and bass, though of course both Lully and Charpentier had earlier incorporated many instrumental trio textures into their larger-scale sacred and dramatic works. Published in engraved partbooks,
Marais's Suites en trio were very up-to-date miniatures: the C major Suite begins with a French overture and concludes with a very original and extended chaconne, while the E minor ends with a ravishing passacaille; in between are dances, rondeaux and pièces de caractère such as "La Bagatelle" and the Caprice.
While the vast majority of Marais's Pièces de viole were for one solo bass, often accompanied by a second, he also composed a number of extraordinarily beautiful trios—pieces and suites—for two basses and continuo, some of which he included in his first collection (1686) and others in the third (1711). His variations on La folia (very probably composed in response to Corelli's) appeared in his second collection (1701) and represent the summit of solo viol playing at the turn of the century.
The Purcell Quartet conclude their Hyperion series of six recordings inspired by the famous La folia theme with this selection of French music, having devoted four discs to Italians—Corelli, A. Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Geminiani—and one to C. P. E. Bach. None of the string players is particularly known for his or her command of the French style and their performance here betrays a certain lack of affinity for it. They are probably playing very authentically—though as early eighteenth century English men and women rather than as Marais and his sons and daughters would have done. This impression is particularly clear in the C major Suite, though less so in the E minor where the connection with Purcell's music is stronger.
To play French music stylishly, a foreigner needs to acquire a sense of the rhetoric and eloquence of the French language, the self-conscious elegance of French dance and the spirit of the times—all of which are embodied in Marais's bow strokes (particularly the enfle, which is sparingly applied in this recording) as well as the exquisite not quite equalness of inégalitè. Where the French linger on dissonances, the English shy away; where the French would prefer a grand gesture (be it only langorous or melancolic), the English tend to understate. The Purcell Quartet are at their best in the Gavotte, "La Bagatelle", the Chaconne and Passacaille, and Richard Boothby shines in the jolly Charivary.
-- J.A.S., Gramophone [4/1990]
Review of original Hyperion release