musica Dei donum

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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632 - 1687): Grands motets

[I] Dies irae - De profundis - Te Deum
Sophie Junker, Judith van Wanroij, dessus; Mathias Vidal, Cyril Aivity, haute-contre; Thibaut Lenaerts, taille; Alain Buet, basse-taille
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Millenium Orchestra; Cappella Mediterranea
Dir: Leonardo García Alarcón
rec: Feb 6, 2018 (live), Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Alpha - 444 (© 2019) (82'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[CCN] Julie Calbete, Elke Janssens, Eugénie de Padirac, Lieve van Lancker, dessus; Serge Goubioud, Matthieu Peyrègne, Benoît Porcherot, Marcio Soares Holanda, haute-contre; Pierre Derhet, Nicolas Maire, Maxime Melnik, taille; Jean Ballereau, Laurent Collobert, Jean-Marie Marchal, basse-taille; Kamil Ben Hsain Lachire, Pierre Boudeville, Philippe Favette*, Julien Neyer, basse (* solo)
[MO, CM] Magdalena Karolak, Griet Cornelis, oboe; Lisa Goldberg, Marine Falque-Vert, bassoon; Patrick Lehmann, Dominique Bodart, trumpet; Patrick Cohën-Akenine, Kristi Apajalathi, Catherine Ambach, Maartje Geris, Amandine Beaulieu, dessus de violon; Jorlen Vega Garcia, Ellie Nimeroski, Fayçal Cheboub, haute-contre de violon; Lola Fernandez, Samantha Montgomery, Helena Chudzik, taille de violon; Sue Ying Koang, Camille Feye, Brigitte de Callataÿ, quinte de violon; Annabelle Luis, Michel Boulanger, Genevieve Koerver, Éric Mathot, basse de violon; Teodoro Bau, Henrikke G. Rynning, viola da gamba; Jan Bontinck, cello; Francisco Gato, Miguel Rincon, lute; Ariel Rychter, organ; Norbert Pflanzer, timpani

[II] "Dies irae"
Les Epopées
Dir: Stéphane Fuget
rec: July 10 - 12, 2020, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS032 (© 2020) (69'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Caroline Arnaut, Abroisine Bré, Claire Lefilliâtre, Jeanne Lefort, Ileana Ortiz, Lucy Page, Marie Perbost, Marie Zaccarini, dessus; Cyril Auvity, Clément Debieuvre, Serge Goubioud, Lisandro Pelegrina, haute-contre; Marco Angioloni, Marc Mauillon, taille; Vlad Crosman, Imanol Iraola, Benoît Arnould, basse-taille; Luc Bertin-Hugault, Renaud Bres, Thierry Cartier, Olivier Gourdy, basse
Marie Hervé, Bertrand Blondet, Frédéric Naël, recorder; Laura Duthuillé, Luc Marchal, recorder, oboe; Arnaud Condé, recorder, basson à la quarte; Anaïs Ramage, recorder, bassoon; Volny Hostiou, serpent; Josef Zak, Charlotte Grattard, Yuna Lee, Hélène Decoin, Maud Sinda, Sabine Cormier, Koji Yoda, Louise Ayrton, dessus de violon; Maialen Loth, Satryo Yudomartono, Delphone Grimbert, haute-contre de violin; Leila Pradel, Diane Omer, Céline Cavagnac, taille de violon; Laurence Martinaud, Youn Young Kim, quinte de violon; Alice Coquart, François Gallon, Julien Hainsworth, basse de violon; Claire Gautrot, Mathias Ferré, viola da gamba; Ludovic Coutineau, grosse basse de violon; Pierre Rinderknecht, Nicolas Wattinne, theorbo; Loris Barrucand, harpsichord; Marie van Rhijn, organ

De profundis (LWV 62) [I,II]; Dies irae (LWV 64/1) [I,II]; O lachrymae (LWV 26) [II]; Te Deum (LWV 55) [I]


The motet was one of the main genres of sacred music of the Renaissance. In most countries it gradually went out of fashion during the 17th century. That was different in France. In the mid-17th century Henry du Mont and Pierre Robert laid the foundation of two kinds of motet: the petit motet, scored for solo voice(s) and basso continuo, sometimes with additional melody instruments, and the grand motet, a large-scale work for solo voices, choir and orchestra.

Both genres were closely connected to the court. Its purpose was not only religious, but also the glorification of the monarch, Louis XIV. That goes especially for the grand motet. Its large scoring in itself reflected the power of the Sun King, but that was supported by the choice of texts. These were mostly taken from the Book of Psalms, and as many Psalms are from the pen of King David, who is called in the Bible a "man after God's own heart", worldly monarchs liked to be compared to him. Louis XIV was no exception.

After Du Mont and Robert, Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of the composers of the next generation who contributed to the genre of the grand motet. He composed eleven such motets, and six of these were published. They are all scored for two choirs, another way to emphasize their importance and that of Louis XIV. Lully's position and the status of his music was such that he felt free to write in his dedication to the King that his motets could be used as models for his successors in the position of sous-maître de la Chapelle. Whereas the grand motet at first was only performed at special occasions, Louis wanted them to become part of daily Mass, in particular after he had moved to Versailles in May 1682.

Even so, several of Lully's motets were initially intended for special occasions. That goes for three of the motets included in the two recordings under review here. Dies irae and De profundis were written to be performed during the ceremonies which were part of the funeral of Queen Marie-Thérèse (who had died on 30 July) on 1 September 1683. A few years ago, Raphaël Pichon recorded a kind of reconstruction of the funerals of Louis XIV himself in 1715, and that gives some idea of the character and order of such ceremonies. One may assume that these were not fundamentally different from those in 1683. At that occasion the Requiem Mass was sung in stile antico. Whether the De profundis was the exception is not mentioned, but apparently it was in 1683. Psalm 129 (De profundis) is one of the penitential psalms, and as such performed during Lent, but it had also become part of the Office of the Dead. In this context, the usual doxology was replaced by the opening lines of the Introitus of the Requiem Mass.

As these two motets are linked by the occasion for which they were originally intended, it is only logical that both Leonardo García Alarcón and Stéphane Fuget decided to include them in their programmes. For the third work their ways depart: whereas Fuget decided to perform another piece whose text keeps us in the rather gloomy atmosphere of the other two, García Alarcón apparently wanted to end on a more positive note, probably because his programme was to be performed and recorded live. Fuget's recording was made under studio conditions - although at the same venue - and that gives more freedom in the selection of music. The inclusion of O lachrymae makes much sense. The opening section sets the tone: "O tears, faithful tears of the sorrowful soul come forth from our hearts, and drop from the eyes in a plentiful fountain". The reason is revealed in the opening sentence of the next section: "O fountain of love, we have sinned against you". This indicates that in its content this text is close to that of Psalm 129. The author of the text is Pierre Perrin (c1620-1675), a poet and author of librettos. In the latter capacity he played a role in the creation of a truly French opera. Lully's setting of O lachrymae was probably written in 1664 and is often connected to his setting of the Miserere the year before.

The Te Deum was one of the key texts in the French monarchy. It had always been associated with royalty, as it proclaims the glory and power of God, and rulers considered themselves his earthly counterpart or at least his representative on earth. Te Deums were performed at the occasion of military victories (Charpentier's setting is a famous example) or the signing of peace treaties. Lully's Te Deum was first performed on 9 September 1677 on the occasion of the solemn baptism of the composer's eldest son. That was undoubtedly a great honour, but Lully and Louis XIV were very close, and the King and Queen were the godparents of Lully's son. The splendour of the text is emphasized by the scoring which includes trumpets and timpani. Halfway, the text turns into a prayer: "We therefore pray thee, help thy servants, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood". This is introduced by a symphonie which is characterised by restraint, as the trumpets and timpani are silent. This restraint also marks the next vocal sections, until the whole ensemble gets involved in the closing section: "O Lord, in thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded".

The Dies irae and the Te Deum are the most frequently-recorded motets by Lully. There are quite some differences in the duration of the former, lasting between a little under 16 minutes (Niquet; Naxos, 2000) to more than 23 in Fuget's recording. With a little under 21 minutes, García Alarcón is markedly faster, and the difference seems most striking in the opening section. Listening to the two performances in sequence, I started with Fuget and then turned to García Alarcón. At first I was wondering whether he was performing another version: he starts with hammering chords in the orchestra in a pretty speedy tempo, and then the tenors of the choir sing the plainchant tune "Dies irae, dies illa". Fuget is considerably slower, and the opening statement is sung by a solo tenor. The differences are not always that large, but the approach of the two conductors seems quite different. I am almost inclined to say that García Alarcón focuses on effect and Fuget on Affekt. However, things are not black and white here. For a start, both elements are an important part of sacred music written for the Chapelle Royale, and both recordings include them. It is just that in the Dies irae García Alarcón emphasizes the dramatic and fearful elements of the text, whereas Fuget opts for a more restrained, inward-looking, almost meditative style of performing.

It is relevant to quote here a part of the 'biography' of the ensemble in the booklet. "Les Épopées, under the impulse of their musical director, create a musical journey with a rich and moving vision, beyond the frontiers of simple notes. Indeed, the score serves merely as a framework, a kind of troupe-l'oeil. The interpretation must find life beyond the visual representation of notes: the melody of baroque song both clothed in extravagant profusion of ornaments, and very declamatory. To do this, the voice makes the text resound by enriching the musical line with a multitude of micro-intervals, tiny inflections. We are no longer dealing with note-pitches, but a level of declamation. The speech thus liberated, the comprehensible text immediately comes to the fore. Closer to us, freely carried by the emotion of the song, it reaches the heart of the listener". This may well explain the contributions of the soloists, which indeed pay utmost attention to the text, and have a more declamatory way of singing than one is used to, and more than in García Alarcón's recording. The word 'soloist' is not entirely appropriate in the case of Fuget's recording, as there they are not specifically mentioned and are very much part of the vocal ensemble. That is different in García Alarcón's recording, where they don't participate in the tutti sections. They are also acting more as 'soloists' in the true sense of the word.

I would like to add that I don't have a strong prefence for either recording, as I enjoyed both of them. Both have their pros and cons. In either recording the solo passages are sometimes marred by a little too much vibrato, and in García Alarcón's recording Alain Buet is regularly guilty of that, which is a shame, as I really like his voice and appreciate his treatment of the text. Where the soloists do participate in the tutti sections - those where the petit choeur (the soloists as a team) join the grand choeur - the vibrato in some of the voices compromises the ensemble. That is less of a problem in Fuget's recording. The differences are most striking in the Dies irae, as the text of the De profundis does offer less opportunities to a different approach. O lachrymae is a fine work and as there are only few recordings of this motet, Fuget's account is an important addition to the discography. The Te Deum receives a brilliant and splendid interpretation from García Alarcón.

The booklets are different as well. Whereas the Alpha recording includes liner-notes by Thomas Leconte, who puts the three motets in their historical and musical context, the other disc's booklet omits all information about the music. Instead we get a short biography of Lully and a short essay on "Ornamentation in France in the seventeenth century" by Fuget. That is nice, but the music should come first, and as Lully's motets are certainly not that familiar stuff, some information about the music is indispensable.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Sophie Junker
Thibaut Lenaerts
Mathias Vidal
Judith van Wanroij
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Cappella Mediterranea
Les Epopées
Millenium Orchestra

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