musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER, Henri DESMAREST: Te Deum

Ensemble Les Surprises
Dir: Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas

rec: Dec 2022, Metz, Arsenal Cité musicale
Alpha - 1018 (© 2023) (51'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Desmarest
Score Charpentier

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Te Deum (H 146); Henri DESMAREST (1661-1741): Te Deum 'de Lyon'

[solo] Jehanne Amzal, Eugénie Lefebvre, soprano; Clément Debieuvre, François-Olivier Jean, haute-contre; François Joron, tenor; Jean-Christophe Lanièce, David Witczak, baritone

In the course of history the text of the Te Deum has been set numerous times. As it was considered especially suitable for performance at important events of the state, it does not surprise that in France, during the ancien régime, quite a number of composers set this text. Among the events which inspired such settings were also those which concerned members of the royal family. Given that France was an absolute monarchy, births, weddings and funerals were basically also state events.

By far the best-known of French Te Deums is the one by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The number of recordings is considerable, and recently I reviewed here a recording by La Chapelle Harmonique under the direction of Valentin Tournet. The disc under review includes another one, this time by the ensemble Les Surprises.

Charpentier wrote at least six settings, four of which have been preserved. As most Te Deums, this one includes parts for trumpets and drums. It is generally thought to be written at the occasion of the victory of France at Steinkerk, on 3 August 1692. The key of D major is highly appropriate, as it is characterised by Charpentier himself as "joyful and very warlike". The text contains strong contrasts: for instance, a passage about the Last Judgement is followed by prayers for Gods mercy. These contrasts are fully exploited by the composer, both in the scoring and the affetti. Contrasts in music were something Charpentier was specifically interested in: "the very diversity is what creates perfection". There can't be any doubt that we see here the influence of his teacher, Giacomo Carissimi, who was especially famous for his oratorios, which had a strongly dramatic character. Most listeners to Charpentier's Te Deum may be impressed by the exuberant sections, with trumpets and timpani. However, as far as expression is concerned, the highlight in my opinion is 'Te per orbem terrarum' (The holy church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee), which is a wonderful trio for haute-contre, tenor and baritone.

The second setting on this disc is from the pen of Henri Desmarest. Not only is this work hardly known, the composer is also certainly not a household name, although in recent years some of his works have been recorded, including a couple of operas and some grands motets. 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, Philip 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 he took the position of surintendant de la musique.

Desmarest's oeuvre includes two settings of the Te Deum. The first dates from 1687 and was performed at the occasion of the recovery of Louis XIV from a fistula (attesting to the fact that events in the private life of royalty were also state events). This version is called de Paris. The setting performed here has the addition de Lyon, as the only source of this work is the Académie des Beaux-Arts there. It was added to the collection between 1713 and 1727, when Desmarest intermittently served his employer as director of music in Lunéville, the country seat of the Dukes of Lorraine. There are indications that this work was not performed at the weekly concerts of the Académie, but was intended for the Lorraine court. It has been argued that it may have been performed in 1725 in honour of Princess Marie Leszczynska. On her way to the marriage with Louis XV, she visited Verdun, a city in the duchy of Lorraine, where - according to reports - she attended "a musical setting of the Te Deum & a Motet, specially composed". "In the library register of the Academy of Lyons the Te Deum by Demarest is associated with just such another large-scale motet, a Nisi Dominus, now lost. This would have been a setting of Psalm 126, which lists the precepts of a fruitful life - a house built by God, the conf dence and protection of the Lord, and the reward of children, an inheritance of sons as a bulwark against the enemy. That really does sound like a royal marriage motet, to be performed alongside the customary Te Deum." (booklet)

The instrumental scoring of Desmarets setting is not mentioned in the booklet, but does not fundamentally differ from that of Charpentier's setting. Like his colleague, Desmarest changed the vocal scoring from large-scale choral sections to episodes for one or several solo voices. The prayer 'Te ego quaesumus' is set in a restrained manner: "We therefore pray thee, help thy servants, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood." The same goes for 'Dignare Domine: "Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin", which is a duet of tenor and baritone.

The works by Desmarest that have been recorded, show that he was a fine composer, and that is confirmed by this setting of the Te Deum. It is in no way inferior to Charpentier's much more famous setting, and this recording does it full justice. There are a few soloists who use a little too much vibrato now and then, but overall I am quite happy with these performances. It is a good development that nowadays pieces like these Te Deums, which belong among the genre of the grand motet, are treated as ensemble pieces, which means that they are performed by vocal and instrumental ensembles, whose members participate in the tutti sections and take care of the solo parts when needed. That guarantees an optimum coherence within the ensemble, more than in a performance with external soloists. It is easy to hear that the members of this ensemble work together on a regular basis.

Most music lovers who have a liking of French music may have one or more recordings of Charpentier's Te Deum in their collection, and may not need another one. However, Desmarest's setting deserves its place in such a collection. His Te Deum is reason enough to purchase this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Les Surprises

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