musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"In excelsis Deo - Au temps de la guerre de Succession d'Espagne 1701-1714" (At the time of the War of the Spanish Succession)

La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall

rec: 1996a, 2014b, Cardona, Castell de Cardona (Collegiata de Sant Vicenç); July 2 & 3, 2016, Versailles, Chapelle Royalec
AliaVox - AVSA9924 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.54'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S/C; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/I/S/C
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Catalunya comptat gran, romance (arr Jordi Savall)b; Catalunya en altre temps (arr Jordi Savall)b; Catalunya triomfantb; El Cant dels Aucells (arr. Jordi Savall)b; Joan Bautista José CABANILLES (1644-1712) / Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): Batalla Imperiala; Henry DESMAREST (1661-1741): Messe à deux choeurs et deux orchestresc; Francesc VALLS (1671-1747): Missa Scala Aretinac

Jordi Savall has a lively interest in history, not only in music history, as he recently demonstrated in a disc devoted to Heinrich Isaac at the occasion of the composer's death in 1517, but also in history in general. That explains the present set of two discs which have been produced at the occasion of the commemoration of the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714.

This war was the result of Charles II, the last Habsburg King of Spain, dying without a heir in 1700. Attempts to solve the problem by dividing the empire among the candidates for the throne failed. Charles II designated Philip, Duke of Anjou, the second-eldest grandson of King Louis XIV of France (representing the house of Bourbon), as his successor. But a coalition of other countries, fearing French dominance of the continent, supported Emperor Leopold I's claim to the whole Spanish inheritance for his second son, Archduke Charles. The strong anti-French feelings in Catalonia led to support for Charles and the Allied cause. In 1705 Barcelona was taken by the Allied forces and Charles settled here until the city was conquered by the Bourbon party in 1714.

The present discs include two large-scale sacred works, which represent the two sides in the conflict, so to speak. However, there is also a musical connection between them, as the French composer Henry Desmarest spent some time in Barcelona and almost certainly has met Francesc Valls. It is even likely that the latter's Missa Scala Aretina inspired his French colleague to the composition of his Messe à deux choeurs.

Valls was born between 1665 and 1671 in Barcelona. In 1688 he was appointed maestro de capilla at Gerona Cathedral and in 1696 he was given the same position at S María del Mar in Barcelona. From that year onwards he was also associated with Barcelona Cathedral, and in 1709 he received the title of maestro. Valls' oeuvre is quite large, but he has become almost exclusively known for his Missa Scala Aretina, which was also the subject of a heated debate. "The polemics to which the mass gave rise centred on the second soprano's entry on an unprepared 9th at 'miserere nobis' in the Gloria. Gregorio Portero, maestro de capilla at Granada Cathedral, fired the first salvo in 1715", Craig H. Russell states in New Grove. "What had started as a debate among professionals was gradually heating up to reach boiling point in the spring of 1717, when many of the masters of the peninsula took sides", according to Álvaro Torrente in the liner-notes to the recording of this mass by Albert Recasens. However, this debate wasn't just about musical matters. It had everything to do with politics which played a major role in Valls' career. As he had cooperated with Archduke Charles in musical matters he fell out of grace, when the Bourbon party conquered Barcelona, and in 1719 he was dismissed as maestro de capilla of Barcelona Cathedral. Gregorio Portero who initiated the debate about Valls' Missa Scala Aretina was known for his strong Bourbon profile. "[If] we analyse its context in detail (...) and the biography of the key protagonists, Valls' detractors mostly held a clearly pro-Bourbon affiliation, while among his defenders were many musicians from the regions supporting the Hapsburgs. It is thus patently clear that the argument over aesthetics was merely one of the dimensions of the controversy but perhaps not the most relevant one." (Torrente)

As I already indicated, Desmarest was in Barcelona at the same time as Valls. That raises questions: why would a French composer be active in Spain? Like Valls, Desmarest was controversial, but for entirely different reasons. He was born in Paris, but little is known about his formative years. Being a boy page in Louis XIV's musical establishment, he probably became acquainted with Lully. In 1680 he is mentioned as ordinaire de la musique du Roy. He started to write sacred music, but later turned to secular repertoire. Shortly after the death of his wife he fell in love with a pupil, who at the time was a minor. A legal battle ended with Desmarest and the girl leaving the country to avoid death penalty. Having stayed for some time in Brussels he went to Barcelona where he entered the service of Philip V. Being the grandson of Louis XIV, he wanted to copy musical life at Versailles. He attracted French musicians and Desmarest became Master of the French Music. It didn't last long: after a sojourn in Italy Philip was so impressed by the Italian style that he decided to disband his French Music. It left Desmarest without a job. In 1707 he entered the service of Leopold I, Duke of Lorraine, at Nancy, where that same year he performed the Messe à deux choeurs in 1707.

In his liner-notes Savall sees some parallels between Valls' Missa Scala Aretina and Biber's Missa Bruxellensis, which in his opinion could be due to the presence of musicians from the Archduke's Austrian court in Barcelona. However, Valls' Mass is less opulent, and scored for only 11 voices (vs Biber's 23), divided into three choirs, with an ensemble of winds and strings; in this performance the latter are put together into a fourth choir. It includes sections for reduced voices and even passages for only a pair of them, such as 'Domine Deus' (Gloria) for two sopranos, the second imitating the first. This mass is a specimen of the mixture of Italian and traditional Spanish elements. It is basically written in the stile antico, but Valls adds characteristics of the concertante style in vogue in Italy. It is not just the splendour of the scoring which impresses. There are also passages of strong expression, for instance the closing episode of the second Kyrie, 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' from the Gloria - including the chord which inspired the above-mentioned debate - and the use of dissonants to depict the words "passus et sepultus est" from the Crucifixus (Credo). At the end of the Credo the words "peccatorum" and "mortuorum" receive special treatment.

Desmarest's mass is unique in its own way: whereas the grand motet for solo voices, choir and orchestra was a favourite genre of Louis XIV and such pieces were still written decades after his death, for instance by Lalande, masses with orchestra were very rare, in particular those which required two choirs. Apparently the unique character of this work was recognized. André Philidor, Louis XIV's music librarian, had taken care of Desmarest's works during the latter's exile, also made a faithful copy of this mass, and thanks to him it has come down to us. "In his copy of the Mass, as in the case of other works by Desmarest, Philidor meticulously wrote the name of each of the finest and most eminent court artists who agreed to perform the disgraced composer's works", the musicologist Jean Duron states. There is every reason to be thankful to Philidor, not only because this work is unusual in its musical construction, but also because of the quality of the music and the way Desmarest makes use of the polychorality. There are quite some contrasts between various sections of the mass in tempo and character. 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Crucifixus' are particularly expressive. The Hosanna, on the other hand, is one of the most sparkling sections of the entire mass.

This is a recording of live performances in the Chapelle Royale of the Versailles Palace, which is a pretty large space, but the presence of an audience prevents it from becoming too reverberant. The performances are very good: as always Savall works with largely the same people who know what he looks for in a performance. This results in a strong amount of coherence. The interpretations are colourful, expressive where needed and explosive when the music asks for it. There is only one issue: I find it hard to understand why Savall opts for an Italian pronunciation of Latin in Desmarest's mass. Today it is pretty much common practice to use the then common French pronunciation. The more I hear that, the more the old-fashioned pronunciation bothers me.

On the first disc we also find some extracts from previous recordings. The pieces are in some way or another connected to Catalonia and its culture. Considering recent political events in Spain concerning the movement towards independence of Catalonia from Spain, this is probably no coincidence. I could have done without these additions.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations; Hespèrion XXI

CD Reviews