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"Deux siècles d'orgue - La Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles"

Michel Bouvarda, Frédéric Desenclosb, François Espinassec, Jean-Baptiste Robind, organ

rec: April 4 - 9, 2011, Château de Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Alpha - 950 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (2.21'30")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1727-1799): Noël Suisseb [8]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Messe propre pour les couvents de religieux et religieuses (Kyrie; Gloria [duo sur les tierces; basse de trompette; chromorne sur la taille; dialogue sur la voix humaine; trio en dessus sur la tierce et la basse sur la trompette]; Sanctus; Agnus Dei)c [4]; Jean-François DANDRIEU (c1682-1738): Suite No. 1 in D (Offertoire pour le jour de Pâques; Magnificat)b [6]; Suite No. 6 in A (muzette; tierce en taille)b [6]; Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772): IX Noël, sur les Flûtesb [7]; X Noël, Grand jeu et Duob [7]; Nicolas LEBÈGUE (1631-1702): A la venue de Noëld [3]; Les Clochesd [3]; Or nous ditte Maried [3]; Pièces du 6e ton (prélude; duo; fugue grave; basse de trompette; echo; dialogue)d [2]; Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732): Grand Dialogue in Ca [5]; Pièces choisies pour l'orgue (plein jeu; fugue; trio; basse de trompette; tierce en taille; duo; récit; fond d'orgue; dialogue)a; Guillaume-Gabriel NIVERS (1632-1714): Messe (récit de cromhorne [Benedictus]; Offertoire en fugue et Dialogue)d [1]; Jacques-Denis THOMELIN (c1640-1693): Hymne Ave maris stellad

Sources: [1] Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 2e livre d'orgue contenant la messe et les hymnes de l'église, 1667; Nicolas Lebègue, [2] Les pièces d’orgue, 1676; [3] Troisième livre d’orgue, 1685?; [4] François Couperin, Pieces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes, 1690; [5] Louis Marchand, Pièces choisies pour l’orgue, after 1732; [6] Jean-François Dandrieu, 1er livre de pièces d'Orgue, 1739; [7] Louis-Claude Daquin, Nouveau livre de noëls, 1757; [8] Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Recueil de noels formant 4 suittes, 1770

Musically speaking Versailles is immediately associated with the splendour at the court of Louis XIV: the operas, the grands motets, the music which was performed to entertain the King and his entourage and to show off. This set of discs shed light on a lesser-known aspect of musical life in Versailles: the music for organ played in the Chapelle Royale. As some of the best organists of their time served in the chapel, this recording can also serve as a survey of the organ music written during the ancien régime.

After having settled in Versailles Louis planned the building of a chapel as a place for daily worship. The construction took considerable time: it was only finished in 1710. In the meantime the royal family used a temporary chapel on the first floor. In 1678 the court's organist, Joseph Chabanceau de La Barre, died and Louis organized a competition. He decided to appoint four organists each of whom would serve three months a year. The chosen ones were Jacques Thomelin, Jean-Baptiste Buterne, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and Nicolas Lebègue. In 1693 Thomelin died, and his pupil François Couperin was appointed as his successor. Lebègue was the favourite of Louis XIV. In 1679 the King had commissioned a new organ but this was never completed. The four organists therefore rather played an instrument of modest proportions which was used from 1682 until 1710.

In the latter year a new organ was inaugurated, built by Robert Clicquot and Julien Tribuot and located above the high altar. The organ didn't survive history without changes. Although it was saved during the French Revolution, it was fundamentally changed in the 1870s by Aristide Cavallé-Coll who turned it into a romantic instrument. In 1938 a first attempt was made to reconstruct the original organ. In 1989 Jean-Loup Boisseau and Bertrand Cattiaux were asked to rebuild the organ following the original principles and techniques. The pitch is a=415 Hz and the tuning a modified 'Corrette' temperament. The description doesn't make it totally clear whether any material from the organ of 1710 has been integrated into the instrument or whether it is a completely new-built organ.

Until 2010 Michel Chapuis was the organist of this organ. In that year he expressed the wish to be succeeded, and - as a remembrance of Louis XIV's competition - four organists were appointed: Michel Bouvard, Frédéric Desenclos, François Espinasse and Jean-Baptiste Robin. They are all prominent figures at the French organ scene. This recording was made to mark the anniversary of the inauguration of the organ in Versailles. The main composers of organ music from the mid-17th century until the French Revolution are represented. Most organ aficionados will know them. However, it is unlikely they have ever heard a piece by Jacques-Denis Thomelin. According to New Grove no organ music from his pen has come down to us. Apparently the Hymne Ave maris stella has been discovered fairly recently. No organ music by Buterne is known; he died in 1721 and was succeeded by Jean-François Dandrieu.

Nicolas Lebègue was from Laon and of humble origins. It is not known when he moved to Paris, but he was there at 1661 at the latest. At that time he was already an organist of repute. His oeuvre comprises mainly keyboard music: two books with harpsichord pieces and three organ books were printed and a number of pieces for both instruments have been preserved in manuscript. His music found wide dissemination and was several times reprinted which is an indication that it was highly valued. He played a key role in the development of French organ music, for instance in a more prominent and independent role of the pedal. The three books also illustrate the shift from a strictly ecclesiastical style to a growing influence of secular music. Les Cloches from the third book is an example of a piece of musical illustration which would become common in the repertoire for harpsichord.

Nivers was from Paris and was born into a wealthy family; his father was a bourgeois de Paris. From the early 1650s until his death he was organist of St Sulpice. His appointment as organist of the royal chapel was not his only connection to the court. In 1681 he succeeded Henri du Mont as master of music to the queen. Nivers' organ works are all written for liturgical use. He combines traditional counterpoint with influences from secular music. Nivers was also active as a publisher and editor of liturgical music, especially plainchant. Some of his editions include plainchant with contemporary ornamentation. Today these are regularly used for the performance of liturgical organ music.

The organ masses by François Couperin are examples of such a practice. Both are written for liturgical use, and were printed in 1690. The most extended and technically brilliant of the two is the Messe à l'usage ordinaire des paroisses in which Couperin makes use of the cantus firmus technique. That is not the case in the shorter Messe pour les couvents from which extracts are played on this disc. That doesn't mean that there are no brilliant pieces here: the Offertoire sur les grands jeux from the Credo is a good example.

Louis Marchand was appointed as one of the organists of the royal chapel in 1708 as successor to Nivers. He was a brilliant keyboard player, but also a difficult character which damaged his career. In order to escape the troubles he had brought on himself he left the country for some time. At the end of his life he was mainly active as a teacher. Little of Marchand's compositional output has been preserved. It comprises two books of harpsichord pieces, a number or organ works and some vocal compositions. One of his most famous and most brilliant pieces is the Grand Dialogue which dates from 1696.

Jean-François Dandrieu was appointed as organist of the royal chapel in 1721 as successor to Buterne. He was a child prodigy at the harpsichord: at the age of just five he played before Elisabeth-Charlotte of Bavaria, the princess Palatine, wife of Louis XIV's brother, Philippe d'Orléans. The main source of his organ music is the 1er livre de pièces d'Orgue which was printed posthumously in 1739. Two features are prominent in this book: the use of counterpoint - which inspired the German theorist Marpurg to call him "the German organist" - and the influence of secular music, especially the operas of Lully. Some pieces are transcriptions of movements from his trio sonatas.

Dandrieu was succeeded as organist of the Chapelle Royale in 1639 by Louis-Claude Daquin, who was from a family of Jewish intellectuals. Like Dandrieu he was a child prodigy: he played the harpsichord before Louis XIV at the of six. Only six years later he took his first post as organist. He was one of the pupils of Louis Marchand and became especially famous for his improvisations. There can be little doubt that the Nouveau livre de noëls, printed in 1757, is the fruit of these improvisations. These Noëls can be played at the organ, but also at the harpsichord or with an instrumental ensemble.

The reputation of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was largely based upon his playing of Noëls. When he played his own noëls en variations at St Roch every year at Midnight Mass, the performance attracted such a crowd that in 1762 the archbishop finally forbade him to play. He frequently performed at the Concert Spirituel where he often played transcriptions of his concertos or pieces from contemporary operas, for instance those by Rameau. In 1776 he was appointed as organist to the brother of Louis XVI and at the same time he taught the harpsichord to Marie Antoinette. He was the last organist of the royal chapel, probably as a successor to Daquin.

This disc shows the development of the classical French organ school from the mid-17th century until the French Revolution. Whatever the historical credentials of the present organ in the Chapelle Royale, it serves the music well. The four organists are on the same wavelength and deliver convincing and stylish interpretations. Organ lovers will probably have much of the repertoire at these discs in their collection. Even so they should consider purchasing this set because of the historical survey, the fine performances and the interesting organ. I should not forget to mention that the temperament of this instrument leads to some quite spicy harmonic progressions which make these performances all the more compelling.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Jean-Baptiste Robin

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