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Pardessus de Viole

Early Music America
March 19, 2020

The pardessus de viole, the highest member of the viola da gamba family, had its heyday in France in the mid-18th century, prompting a flurry of original compositions and adaptations for the instrument. The name indicates its register, as “above the dessus” (the treble viol). For a limited but fruitful time — roughly, the reign of Louis XV —the pardessus extended the popularity of music played on the viola da gamba, shifting the often-dark work of the masters of the bass viol (notably Marin Marais) to a lighter and more violinistic style. Because the pardessus was played vertically, on the lap, the instrument was popular with female players — it was more decorous, more fitting to the costumes of the day — and there were no unsightly violin hickeys.

While much of the music for the pardessus remains unrecorded, a 2016 release by Mélisande Corriveau, a Montreal-based gamba player and member of Les Voix Humaines, brings it to life. Corriveau’s album with harpsichordist Eric Milnes opens a window into the fascinating and beautiful world of 18th-century French salon music for the pardessus. (The pair can also be heard on a recent CD with Les Délices, Songs Without Words, which was reviewed by EMA in January 2019. Read it here.) Pardessus de Viole includes sonatas, suites, and a few occasional pieces by Jean Barrière, Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, Jean Bodin de Boismortier, and — my favorite — the performer-composer Charles Dollé, who worked in Paris around the middle of the century.

The music is elegant and charming, but far from simplistic. As Marais does for the bass viol, these composers tax the skill of the pardessus performer. Tuneful and dancelike, the pieces are loaded with virtuosic elements: runs, leaps, and double stops — the latter often combined with arpeggios and suspensions. Complicated enough as written, the music also demands ornamentation, as every contemporary French treatise makes clear. This was no music for a mere dilettante to play.

Corriveau’s performance, on a beautiful 1710 pardessus from the Hart Collection at the University of Toronto, is both elegant and virtuosic. Her tone is rich in the lower registers, transparent and singing on the higher strings. The ornamentation is masterfully free and fluid: trills of all kinds, of course, highly varied; lovely examples of that very French ornament, the tierce coulé; runs as swirling and delicate as Rococo volutes; and, every now and then, a lovely, slow vibrato.

Milnes’s harpsichord accompaniments are as richly ornamented as the pardessus line, full of expressive realizations of the figured bass, continually surprising and delighting — and, best of all, never getting in the way of the treble.

Early Music America

American Record Guide
August 16, 2016

The pardessus de viole is a viola da gamba that covers about the range of today’s violin, though it is held between the legs somewhat like a cello, but without reaching the ground. It was considered a ladies instrument in its time—the 1700s. Don’t look now, but this conforms to that tradition. Hi, Melisande!

As far as I can determine, little of the music recorded here has appeared on records before. These are all fine French composers of the time of Bach and his boys, and they write with poetic personality and enjoyable verve. Corriveau and Milnes play sensitively and stylistically. The only minus aspect to my ears is that the otherwise well-balanced recording is a bit lacking in high frequencies when played at a normal setting. You can turn up the highs a bit and that problem may be solved. At any rate, this is a lovely collection of suites and sonatas played with sensitive phrasing and polished to a turn.

David W Moore - American Record Guide

June 21, 2016

A pardessus recital is a rarity, indeed! Fine treble viol plays are reasonably thick on the ground these days but are heard mainly in 17th-century consort music and earlier ensemble music.

Pardessus players belong to a subset of viol players who specialise in 18th-century French chamber music, both pièces and sonatas composed specifically for the pardessus in les gouts réunïs style and violin sonatas of the day. The original devotees of the six- and later five-string pardessus were most often aristocratic. Mélisande Corriveau belongs to a new generation of players bringing formidable performing skills and knowledge of period practices. A recorder player and Baroque cellist as well, Corriveau wrote her doctoral thesis on the pardessus and on this CD eloquently plays an instrument by Nicolas Bertrand (1710). Listeners will marvel at its silvery tone, thinner than that of a violin but still sparkling and warm.

The composers represented here were all either viol players, Hervelois in particular, or knowledgeable about the specific idiomatic qualities of the instrument. Barrière, the violist who travelled to Italy and returned a cellist, contributes perhaps the most blended and beautiful pardessus sonata (1739), though Boismortier’s (1736) runs a close second. The music—a varied mixture of Italian sonata movements, French dances and character pieces—is engaging and divinely interpreted by Corriveau and sympathetically accompanied by Eric Milnes. Dollé’s La précieuse is a vivid portrait, infused with discourse, wit and fine detail, and Les regrets is virtually a private conversation. This CD remarkably evokes a hitherto neglected musical milieu that will, one hopes, win many new followers.

© Julie Anne Sadie - Gramophone

The WholeNote
June 1, 2016

The elegant music featured on this recording was written for a now largely abandoned instrument – pardessus de viole. This smallest member of the viola da gamba family originated in France at the end of the 17th century and had a brief life span of just over 100 years. While pardessus de viole exemplified French aesthetics and their sophisticated musical tastes and values, it was forsaken with the arrival of the Revolution, which did not stand for the same ideals. Featured composers – Barrière, Caix D’ Hervelois, Boismortier and Dollé – are among many prominent French composers who wrote for this instrument at the height of its popularity. However the selection of pieces on this recording is mostly unpublished and carefully chosen from the microfilm collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

What grabbed me immediately was the sound of the “woman’s violin” (as it was nicknamed once upon a time) – pure, light yet robust at times, textured as a crossover between the flute and the violin. Mélisande Corriveau elicits an array of emotions out of her instrument. The virtuosic passages in Jean Barrière’s Sonata in G Major suit her very well but she is equally colourful in depicting the feelings of sorrow in Dollé’s Les Regrets. Eric Milnes is a resourceful and imaginative harpsichord player; together they offer a charming array of ornamentations, making this music a gesture of nobility from the past.

Ivana Popovic – The WholeNote