Jenny Eriksson, The Marais Project
Move Records MCD 564
Many would find it hard what to make of some connections drawn throughout this CD’s content. You’d expect, given the ensemble’s title and the repute of Jenny Eriksson, that the music would owe a large debt to the Baroque French violist Marin Marais, best known through the Alain Corneau 1991 film Tous les matins du monde which investigated the composer’s relationship with his eminent predecessor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. And you do find a Marais track listed, but it’s more of a play on Marais than the original; hence, you can glean something of an explanation in the participating group’s name which suggests that its enterprises will not be devoted to a straight reproduction of the past.
In fact, the only other period music to be found is a suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, one of Marais’ pupils. But even this work has been gussied up to some extent with the addition of an extra gamba line; I’m not sure what this alteration accomplishes even though the results prove unexceptionable.
But the CD’s chief content is contemporary, or near-so. A musician who appears in nearly everything on this recording, theorbo master Tommie Andersson, supplied an arrangement of Hjort Anders Olsson‘s Min levnads afton, a walking tune that the Swedish fiddler performed and so resuscitated. The title work by Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan offers another suite, a take on the form with a prelude, sarabande and gigue of sorts and a cross-bred bouree. Fleshing out the tracks are two scraps of Anglo-Australiana: The Cheshire Rounds, a tune dating back to Playford‘s Dancing Master, and the Streets of Forbes memorializing the career and death of bush-ranger Ben Hall.
Because of the ‘project’ sobriquet, it seems to me that anything goes with everything here. Both constructors and composers/arrangers have a great time finding links in their notes. For example, Llew Kiek comments on similarities between the Swedish tune Lat till Far (recorded in a previous Marais Project album) and the Ben Hall lyric; Cutlan embraces the notion of fortspinnung as exemplified in the close-knit use of material found in Bach (a Baroque tie-in). Andersson differs from this connection-conscious thrust in not linking his Olsson tune adaptation to anything; it’s just there, fleshing out the CD’s 44 minutes’ length.
Eriksson, Andersson and supplementary gambist Catherine Upex perform the Caix d’Hervelois Suite in D minor from the composer’s first book of Pieces de viole. In line with the genre’s plastic layout, some of the seven movements are self-explanatory – prelude, menuet, gigue – while others are personal and impenetrable, like l’Henriette, La Luthee (gift of God?), and, less obscurely, La Villageoise. In the only manuscript I could find of this piece, the player is offered three preludes; Eriksson takes the central one. A few pieces appear to go missing: an allemande and La Coquette. For this opening, Ypex plays a simple continuo reinforcement of Andersson’s theorbo, then occasionally underpins Eriksson’s line in l’Henriette with some parallel motion in thirds. A rondeau goes missing before the calculated rusticity of La Villageoise, where Ypex plays her support with a bit more independence. For the following La Bagatelle, the second gamba supplies the continuo support, which amounts to a running line, most of the time in support of Eriksson. La Luthee sees the second viol almost effaced; in fact, I’m unsure whether its contributions are more than a few subordinate notes throughout this slow gavotte. The concluding gigue and menuet show an amiable jauntiness that has prevailed throughout the suite, notably in some rhythmic jerks during the last piece. A piece called Paisane in my manuscript is not performed, possibly because it adds no change of mood or colour to its predecessors.
The Marais work is a Tombeau for John Dowland, originally the composer’s Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet: a memorial piece, then, for Marais’ own son. Scored for viol and continuo, Eriksson has added another viol line and adapted the original in ways that I can’t fathom. Certainly the extra viol gives the work a smooth edge and fluency that you miss when only one instrument has to supply the chord work. But the only other version of this piece I’ve heard already uses two viols, although the second one is continuo-based. But that reading also uses a harpsichord as well as an archlute to create a rich sound fabric, as does the Marais group here with a fluid, moving deploration.
Olsson’s walking tune brings baroque violinist Matthew Bruce into play; like Andersson, Bruce is a regular member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Also adding to the mix comes flautist Mikaela Oberg, another ABO musician, but the opening is all Andersson and Eriksson until the upper instruments creep into the mix. Not that there’s much to give anyone pause: the tune is attractive and folksy and the musicians play its two halves in various combinations, sharing linear primacy with tact and somehow contriving to suggest – as so much of this Nordic folk-music does – both Scottish and Irish lilts.
Cutlan’s suite involves Eriksson and harpsichordist Raymond Harvey, who begin with the Prelude that has the keyboard spinning out a single line which eventually accretes another while the string complements and moves sideways into different note-values, having the last word at the movement’s brusque conclusion. With Rustic Energy has its fair share of pedal-figures and patterns but Cutlan’s minimalist gestures are mutable creatures and, a third of the way through, he deserts the clod-thumping country-dance effects for a touch of bird-song. The later stretches of this movement interest through the composer’s ability to offer both imitation between his players and independence of movement, all within an insistent framework.
Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande opens with a viol solo, followed by a harpsichord solo on the lute stop. This is true note-spinning where the initial elements lead into imaginative quarters, particularly when Cutlan sets up a statement-response dialogue between Harvey and Eriksson in what can only be described as a kind of harnessed improvisatory melange. The Quasi Gigue starts with fitful propositions from both players that eventually coalesce, but into what sound like two independent parts that settle into a partnership when both decide on common points of emphasis. It is, indeed, like a gigue, in that the metrical inevitability of a similar movement from the English or French Suites is missing here. The composer’s emotional language is a kind of sophisticated bucolicism where you are not far from orthodox harmonic structures but the landscape is spiced with deliberately placed dissonances and contrapuntal accidents.
Bruce and Oberg open the Cheshire Rounds with a duet, Andersson enters with chords, and the tune is played several times before it moves into an answering strophe. The arrangement offered here is a Balkan variant on the original Old Lancashire Hornpipe in that the rhythm has been displaced into a Bulgarian 2+2+3+2+2 which would have dispirited those colonists who apparently frolicked through the original 3/2 setting during the first ball at the New South Wales Government House.
The hornpipe merges into the CD’s final track, the memorial to Ben Hall sung by tenor Koen van Stade. It is a pretty familiar ballad, if melodically unremarkable, and makes an odd conclusion to the whole Marais exercise; nationalistically pleasing, to be sure, but how it fits into the general baroque-and-beyond format escapes me. I suspect that, as with so many other projects, the point of this addition to the amalgam is to underline the relationship between different schools, forms and nationalities in music. Having listened to the tune Lat till Far that this Streets of Forbes is said to resemble., I fear that the Swedish tune is much the superior construct; as a result, the Australian ballad rounds things off in a pretty mundane manner.