When you ask lovers of French baroque what first fired their passion for the endlessly elegant artform that poured forth, often as pure propaganda, from the courts of some of the most autocratic monarchs in Europe, chances are they’ll cite two events: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ 1987 staging of Lully’s opera Atys and Tous Les Matins Du Monde, Alain Corneau’s 1991 film about the composers Jean de Saint-Colombe and Marin Marais.

A wealthy donor arranged for Atys to be recreated in 2011, a performance now captured on DVD, but Corneau’s film has often been frustratingly difficult to get hold of (it’s now, thank heavens, generally available for streaming on Amazon). A pity, as the soundtrack proved a big hit, selling more copies at the time in New York than Madonna’s Erotica, thanks to the inspired musical program and the sublime viol playing of current Limelight International Artist of the Year, Jordi Savall, whose performance won the César Award for Best Music. This sold out Carnegie Hall concert was a rare opportunity to hear that music reprised by Savall himself, still remarkably spry at 77, and a distinguished group of fellow musicians from the Catalan maestro’s Le Concerts des Nations.

Le Concert des Nations. Photo © Jack Vartoogi

Tous Les Matins Du Monde tells how the solitary, misanthropic Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, one of the few major French composers of the time to hold no official court post, buries himself away after the death of his wife and lavishes his musical knowledge on his two daughters. When the 17-year-old Marin Marais appears seeking to learn from the master, Saint-Colombe, who considers him to possess no musical merit, refuses to teach him. Instead, his elder daughter Madeleine, who has fallen in love with Marais, tutors the young man and allows him to listen in secret to her father playing. Although the film ends sadly for the two lovers, by the end, Sainte-Colombe is forced to recognise Marais’ musical gifts.

The soundtrack, and thus the concert, mixes court ballet music and stage pieces by the likes of Lully and Couperin (and in the case of the concert only, the not quite contemporaneous Rameau) with solo and duo works for viol by Marais and Sainte-Colombe. The line-up was a dream team of baroque musical royalty, with Savall on viol joined by co-founder of the Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot on bass viol, Manfredo Kraemer on violin, Charles Zebley on flute, Luca Guglielmi on harpsichord and David Swenberg standing in on theorbo and baroque guitar for an indisposed Rolf Lislevand (Lislevand was one of the original players on the film soundtrack). With decades of experience behind them, and a not inconsiderable quantity of grey hairs, the six players resembled a musical wizards’ convention and one that proceeded to cast its spell over an entranced audience.

Jordi Savall. Photo © Jack Vartoogi

Perhaps their only misstep was beginning with Lully’s jaunty Marche pour la Cérémonie des Turcs, part of his music for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The modest sextet felt a tad small-scale for such a pompous orchestral piece. Fortunately the problem never really recurred. The rest of the Lully suite exhibited a rock solid ensemble and a relaxed sense of musical camaraderie, the mix of plucked and bowed gambas in the lively Canarie especially delicious. For weightier matters, like the concluding Chaconne des Scaramouches, Swenberg switched from frivolous guitar to sober theorbo. A nice touch.

The urbanity of Couperin’s good-natured Concerts Royaux came over nicely in a selection that included a swinging three-quarter time Prélude, a buzzy pair of pastoral Muzettes and an effortlessly moving Plainte pour les violes, before concluding with a whirligig Tambourin care of Rameau. Marais’ catchy Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève, probably the soundtrack’s greatest hit, made a perfect act one finale, the tolling ground bass firm and steady, the increasingly florid divisions seeing all three string players taking joyous flight.

Breaking up the bigger numbers were a series of more intimate pieces by Marais, taken from his four books for the viol. Arranged for viol solo, with bass viol, harpsichord and theorbo providing a sort of continuo group, these were immaculately dispatched. Tangy Muzettes (one of which turned out to be affectingly mournful) jostled with tuneful, stylish Menuets, Savall’s fingers flying thrillingly over the frets in the racy ‘double’ to La Sautillante from Book IV. The Couplets de Folies from Book II gave the whole ensemble a chance to shine as the familiar ‘La Folia’ theme breaks out into captivating upbeat divisions.

Jordi Savall. Photo © Jack Vartoogi

At the heart of this concert though were the pair of works for viol duet by Sainte-Colombe. Savall and Pierlot’s bond was hypnotic, despite being on opposite sides of the platform. Le Retour was replete with filigree decorations, Pierlot’s meaty bass timbre contrasting subtly with Savall’s airier tones. Even more touching was the Tombeau les regrets, a six-movement fantasia on a soul’s departure for, and arrival at the Elysian Fields. The two players moved fluently as one, bringing out the occasional grinding dissonance in the doleful ‘Les regrets’ section while conjuring musical pictures in the air out of the bells of ‘Quarrillon’ and the lively jig of ‘Joye des Elizées’.

In an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, Savall mentioned how Couperin preferred music that touched him to music that surprised him “We have today so many superficial things,” Savall said. “I think in life we need to be touched. Sometimes it’s also nice to be surprised. But the essential thing is to be touched.” Job done, then.

Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift