Although by now the Titon de Tillet anecdote about Marin Marais hiding beneath Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le père’s hut so as to steal his bowings is well-known from the movie Tous les Matins du Monde, we are still much more familiar with Marais’ music than that of Sainte-Colombe, who remains a mysterious, elusive figure. We are even now not entirely confident of his real name. His music only survived by dint of a single manuscript, containing 67 of these Concerts for two equal bass viols, which was found in the collection of Alfred Cortot, and he clearly had no intention of publishing in his own lifetime. Nonetheless, his influence endured, through the works of subsequent composers of French music for violes, such as Marais, Forqueray, and his son, British-resident Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils, whose six Suites for basse de viole solo may well have been known to Bach. Unlike much of the mid-seventeenth century viole repertoire, Sainte-Colombe eschews basso continuo, and the resulting hollow, melancholy sound is characteristically his own—but also very revealing of weakness in performance. It was therefore very brave of early music pioneers Jordi Savall and Wieland Kuijken to tackle a CD of this challenging music as early as 1976. By calling them ésgales, the composer underlines that the two instrumental lines are of equal significance; in fact they are frequently inseparably contrapuntally intertwined in their tenor registers but being seven-string bass instruments—an innovation of Sainte-Colombe himself—and capable of sustained four-voice multiple-stops, the texture can be magnificently rich, and because of the lack of grounding continuo, startlingly mercurial. Typically of their time, the Concerts are in effect Suites, with the kind of picturesque titles that composers like d’Anglebert, Couperin, and Rameau later and more famously adopted: Bourrasque, le Retour, le Tendre, la Rougeville, and probably most familiar to modern audiences,Tombeau les Regrets, from which les pleurs is one of Sainte-Colombe’s most touching movements. Most of the Concerts consist of four to six short, intense statements of characteristic Baroque affekt, of which about half are standard dances like the Sarabande, Gigue, Menuet or Chaconne, and the remainder tiny character-pieces.
The first of these two reissued CDs, recorded in 1976, still has a slightly hesitant, exploratory feel that reminds us just how unfamiliar this whole soundworld was at the time, and despite the marvels of remastering, the recording still has a slightly astringent edge. By the time Savall and Kuijken came to record the second CD, in 1992—soon after Savall had produced the soundtrack for Tous les Matins du Monde—the slight timbral sharpness was long gone, and the sonorousness of these marvellous instruments achieves a grave eloquence. The opening work on CD2, the presumably early Concert VIII, le Conférence, provides a rare example of antiphonal contrast between the two players, which despite its obviousness—or perhaps because of it, in this music of ponderous refinement—is not one of Sainte-Colombe’s usual techniques. Despite his austerity of approach, which contrasts strongly with Marais’ muscular and direct style, Sainte-Colombe achieves a remarkable variety, at least in the ten Concerts here recorded.
One could never tire of listening to such fine performances of Sainte-Colombe’s music, but Savall and Kuijken have only recorded these two CDs …thus far, anyway. We must gratefully accept the little there is and treasure it.