It is, I suppose, the nature of the industry that Jordi Savall’s recent elevation to early music superstar status should overshadow the solid and ground-breaking recordings that he and Hesperion XX produced over the previous thirty years. Fortunately, Savall himself has not forgotten these epoch-making discs, and has been gradually migrating them from their original labels to his own Alia Vox flagship company. These have included some of the most treasured of Hesperion’s back-catalogue, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the first volume of el Cant de la Sibilla, and the magnificent Morales, Guerrero, and Victoria sacred choral works.
Savall started to record the viol works of Marin Marais in 1975, long before the film Tout les Matins du Monde gave the composer a face (that of Depardieu père et fils), and made his name familiar. Over the next eighteen years, Savall released all five books of Marais’s Pieces de Viole which include most of the composers best-known pieces, the massive Folies d’Espagne, le Labyrinthe, and the Tombeau po’ Monsieur de Lully. These all came out on the Astrée label, and feature a veritable pantheon of early music luminaries, Christophe Coin, Anne Gallet, Ton Koopman, and Hopkinson Smith, as continuo. It is unsurprising, then, that Savall has chosen to reissue this historic material on Alia Vox, and as a beautifully packaged budget-price box, complete with extensive liner notes and full-colour reproductions of score pages—the Tombeau po’ Monsieur de Lully score is included complete so that one can follow the performance. There are portraits of Marais young and old on the covers of the liner booklet, so now we even know his real face. It comes as a surprise to our modern ears attuned to the relatively linear cello that the viol is capable of producing such rich, complex, and sophisticated sounds, and Marais utilizes these sonic resources in an astonishingly imaginative fashion: the music is startlingly vivid, characterful and engaging. The Books consist mainly of Suites, collections of shorter pieces in various dance styles, such as Courantes, Sarabandes, Menuets, and Gigues. Interspersed among these are delightful character-pieces with flamboyant names like la Tartarine, le Tourbillon, and the poignant le Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille—a description of a gallstone operation that the composer is thought to have undergone …without anaesthetic, of course.
Given the enormous changes that have taken place in early music performance in the last thirty years, one always has to approach vintage reissues with a certain caution—even as recently as the 1970s performances of pre-eighteenth century music were still somewhat experimental. These Savall recordings not only reintroduced forgotten repertoire but set a standard of execution that to date has perhaps been equalled but certainly not excelled. What has definitely improved, however, is the recorded sound; I compared the re-release of Book Two with the original Astrée release, and the clarity of these remastered hybrid SACDs is a real advance on the original versions—the sound is so good they could pass as newly-recorded.
Altogether this is an exemplary package, lavishly presented, and beautifully remastered. It is extraordinary to think that Marais’s music was forgotten for so long, we can only be grateful that he has such an effective advocate in Jordi Savall.