THE GARDEN PARTY
Move Records MCD 592
Talk of accordions, and they spring up all over the place. No, perhaps not all over but, as the Fates would have it, James Crabb appeared in last week’s bonus recital from Musica Viva; straight after, this Marais Project CD came up for attention and it features piano accordionist Emily-Rose Šárkova as both performer and arranger, appearing in seven of the 19 tracks. Of course, the instrument is up against it for a lack of original material in the serious music field – sorry: established original material – but one way to get around this is to insert your contribution into a biddable ensemble and see what comes out.
Here, Šárkova has been invited by the Project founder Jenny Eriksson to enter the wide-ranging ensemble and imbue the company sound with her own. We start out with Eriksson’s own take on the Feste Champêtre from Marais’ big Suite d’un goût Étranger, included in the composer’s Livre IV for viol and continuo. I’ve spent a while listening to a few versions of the original, following the viol throughout, this research illuminated through a brilliant execution of the piece by Jordi Savall. There seems to be little thematic cross-referencing between Marais’ earthy rondo and Eriksson’s The Garden Party; not that you can read too much into that. As well as the accordion’s penetrating timbre, you have Eriksson herself on gamba, Project regular Tommie Andersson’s baroque guitar, and the all-important violin of Susie Bishop.
Like Marais’ Feste, the Party is initially in a 4/4 rhythm with a long detour into triple time. You hear a recurring root passage in both pieces that demarcates the variants/episodes in the earlier work and acts as a framing device in Eriksson’s reappraisal. And while the 18th century piece’s various sub-divisions feature an appropriate musette and a tambourin, the title track doesn’t take too long before venturing close to the world of klezmer. Later, a few jazz-inflected passages imitate Stephane Grappelli too close for comfort . . . or perhaps the aim was to summon up the French-Italian violinist’s spirit on purpose. One of the modern variants features the gamba and accordion (single-line) in collaboration; another has violin and gamba; later gamba and guitar, before Bishop invokes the Grappelli spirit and we re-enter the klezmer mode.
Still, it’s a party and you’d be insane if you went looking for a thematic consistency at one of those events these days. More to the point, Eriksson’s celebration is crisp and determined in every bar, complete with bracing accordion chords to interpolate some well-placed full-stops.
Next comes another arrangement by Šárkova of four pieces from the E minor Suite from the 1717 Livre IV by Marais. We hear the Rondeau Paÿsan, jump back to the Sarabande, then hear the two characteristic pieces that end the suite: La Matelotte and La Biscayenne. By this stage, you’re hearing (or imagine you are hearing) repetition of material between pieces – or perhaps you think it’s so because of the multiple repeats. In any case, the arrangement is for gamba and accordion and it works pretty well because Šárkova is a deft hand at picking out melody lines to meld into and contrast with Eriksson’s part. This is particularly effective in the Sarabande where the contrast in sonority between both instruments is nowhere near as clear-cut as you’d expect.
An O salutaris hostia by Pierre Bouteiller (no, me neither) uses Danny Yeadon’s gamba as well as Eriksson’s, Andersson’s theorbo, while the text is sung by soprano Belinda Montgomery. This is, for my money, the finest product on the CD but it’s a re-issue from the group’s previous recording from 2009, Love Reconciled. The vocal work is refreshingly clear with just enough ornamentation, while the supporting lines make a splendid and mellow mesh. Such a pity the composer didn’t extend to Aquinas’ second verse with its terse and moving last couplet.
The Suite No. 2 in G minor of 1692 by Marais here uses Melissa Farrow on baroque flute, partnered with Fiona Ziegler’s baroque violin, while Eriksson and Andersson make a firm continuo duo. Once you get used to the convention of treating six regular quavers as changeable into dotted quavers+semiquavers when the mood takes you (yes, that’s just being flippant about a well-established Baroque convention), it’s a pleasure to hear the upper lines move in polished synchronicity. This is another recycling, from the Project’s 2015 Smörgåsbord album, giving us four out of the 13 pieces in the suite itself: Prelude, Rondeau, Plainte and petite Passacaille. All are cleanly accomplished, although I missed the repeat of the Rondeau‘s second part, but delighted in the slow processional of the Plainte, and listened over and over to bars 67 to 65 of the petite Passacaille for the brisk inter-cutting between flute and violin.
Performing J’avois crû qu’en vous aimant, an anonymous petit air tendre, all participants get to run through the theme – Andersson on theorbo to start, then Bishop singing two of the three verses and playing one, Eriksson giving an elegant shape to her outline. All of this is convincing as a mobile plaint, bu I was sorry to have to forego the final section that moves into triple time and breaks the mood, like the third Agnus Dei in so many of those Classical period masses. Still, the MP isn’t alone in that as all other groups I’ve heard attempting this piece also avoid any bucolic suggestions.
Another recycled group (from the group’s Love Reconciled CD of 2009) follows with a selection from Marais’ Livre V of Pieces de violes, Eriksson taking prime position, supported by Andersson on theorbo, Catherine Upex supplying a gamba support, and Chris Berensen the most discreet of harpsichordists. The quartet begins operations with an unexpected preface in the Rondeau louré from Livre III, which accretes instruments as it passes by. then the Allemande la Marianne, a sarabande where the theorbo and second gamba sound very forward, a menuet in which the melody line barely survives the accompanying chords’ ferocity, and La Georgienne dite la Maupertuy which brings an appealing brusqueness of articulation to the fore at each repetition of the main theme.
Last of the previously-issued numbers is Andersson’s arrangement of the Swedish tune Om sommaren sköna which comes from the previously-mentioned Smörgåsbord CD. The executants are tenor Pascal Herrington, Farrow, Ziegler, Eriksson and, of course, Andersson. Nothing new here, again: Andersson leads the way with a solo theorbo rendition of the tune, followed by Eriksson doing the same. Then Herrington sings the rather doleful C minor tune’s first verse before Ziegler has her way with it, supported quietly by Farrow before the tenor comes back with verse three, Farrow very subtly shadowing him. Sorry to miss out on the middle Där hörs en förnöjelig stanza, particularly because the melody suits Herrington’s clean-edged voice. But then, while wishing the best to all concerned, there’s not much you can do with a tune like this except play it over and over – unless you’re prepared to take it out on a limb and provide some real variation.
The Project winds up with two jeux d’esprit that bring Šárkova back into the fold. First is her arrangement of La Anunciación by Ariel Ramirez, sung by Bishop with the piano accordion dominating the perky accompaniment to the Argentinian composer’s Christmas song; Eriksson and Andersson are assisted by double bass Elsen Price and Šárkova takes on a short singing role. It’s very upbeat and happy – and short, because the performers only deliver half of the Félix Luna verses. To finish, we have De fiesta en fiesta, a catchy chacarera (or is it?) by Peteco Carabajal where yet again the performers dig deep to find their inborn Argentinian. The personnel is the same as for La Anunciación and, as has latterly become prevailing practice, the theme gets shared around between the singer and violin with lots of interstitial commentary from the accordion; even the gamba pokes its head above the battlements for a short while and Šárkova joins Bishop for the last quatrain although, as in the previous number, only half the verses get a run-through.
The South American brace brings this celebratory CD to a rousing conclusion as the Marais Project rings up 20 years of operations with some new material and a recycling of their favourites or works that have found favour with MP supporters. Even if you’re so-so about the outer tracks in this album, you get to re-experience these players at their best in previous releases. And, when they’re good, they’re very, very good.