The Southbank’s International Chamber Music series has decamped north of the river to St John’s Smith Square while Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room are undergoing refurbishment, but this was no disadvantage as the Church and its excellent acoustics was a wonderful setting for this sold-out concert of just five instruments, led by Jordi Savall. The programme also dovetailed nicely with the Southbank’s film music season, although in this case there was no separate screening of the film, but instead focussed on French viola da gamba music of the 17th century. 

Jordi Savall never eschews an opportunity to inform and enrichen the concert experience, and in a fascinating pre-concert interview he demonstrated the particular bowing technique of the seven string viola da gamba and explained how it differs from even a Baroque cello.  He also cleared up a mystery for anyone who has listened to the film music, namely the voices singing Une Jeune Fillette. On the recording, they are listed as Savall’s wife, the late Montserrat Figueras, and Maria Cristina Kiehr and indeed there are some clues – crystal clear and pitch-perfect - but actually it sounds nothing like them. Savall revealed that he wanted the voices of young boys but the first group of trained choristers were too operatic, whilst the second group of untrained schoolboys had the right sound but could not in tune. So he recorded the two sopranos then speeded up the tape, giving him just the effect he was seeking.

Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) is the 1991 French film of the novel by Pascal Quignard, for which Savall recorded all the music. He was joined in last night’s concert by lutenist Rolf Lislevand who also played on the original recording. The film depicts Marin Marais reflecting in old age on the period of his life when, as a young man, he sought lessons from the master viol player Monsieur de Sainte Colombe. 

Monsieur Sainte-Colombe was represented by two works of which the less mournful was a lengthy, reflective, somewhat melancholic piece for two bass viols, Le retour. Even though at opposite ends of the stage, and seldom glancing over at each other, Savall and Philippe Pierlot achieved a flowing and seamless partnership, with exquisite flashes of unison and dissonance, and listened to by a rapt audience in which you could hear a pin drop.

In the same way that the film was based only loosely around what little is known about the protagonists’ lives, the evening was not confined to the music of Marais and Sainte-Colombe, but rather a tour through French writing for the viol at its zenith. There were two sets of Muzettes, one by Couperin and for me the more interesting set by Marais, with a slow opening section by the gamba accompanied by a drone from the long unfretted strings of the theorbo; a brief snatch of complexity with the addition of harpsichord in the second musette, then a reprise of the beginning, with delicate embellishment – it was plaintive and utterly gripping.

The first half concluded with perhaps the most dramatic piece of the evening – Marais’s Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris – underpinned throughout by a ground bass of emphasised and repeated falling three-note phrase, representing the Bells of St Genevieve, while the violin soars with a unconnected verse subsequently passed to the viol, all the time growing in strength and complexity.

Other highlights were Marais Couplets de Folies from Pièces de viole, Book 2, the couplets being first a slow setting of the folia by viol and theorbo followed by double-time variation on the same theme. The imagination of the variations on La Folia was stunning, embracing different rhythms, syncopation and instrument combinations, with notes left hanging in the air momentarily before gathering momentum for the next set of variations.

The concert concluded with Jean-Marie Leclair’s Trio Sonata in D, which had the rather curious feel of a string quartet with entirely different instruments (as well as being a quintet), Lislevand exchanging his theorbo for Baroque guitar for the first and last movements. But after a bit of mental re-adjustment, it proved a lively and mind-stretching contrast to the mid-17th century pieces, hinting at the changes to come and the increasing prominence of the violin.

The ensemble was listed in the programme as Le Concert des Nations, and indeed they have played with Jordi Savall in his various orchestras for years, but all are renowned soloists in their own right and such luxurious casting paid dividends for this intimate chamber concert of seldom-performed music. It was two hours of sheer joy.