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Michel-Richard DE LALANDE (1657 - 1726): "Majesté"

Emmanuelle De Negri, Dagmar Sasková, soprano; Sean Clayton, haute-contre; Cyril Auvity, tenor; André Morsch, bass
Ensemble Aedes; Le Poème Harmonique
Dir: Vincent Dumestre

rec: May 2017, Versailles, Château (Chapelle Royale)
Alpha - 968 (© 2018) (74'32")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Deitatis majestatem (S 3); Ecce nunc benedicite (S 8); Te Deum (S 32)

Elsa Frank, Johanne Maître, Béatrice Delpierre, transverse flute, oboe; Jérémie Papasergio, transverse flute, bassoon; Gilles Rapin, Bruno Fernandes, trumpet; Samuel Domergue, timpani; Fiona-Émilie Poupard, Yuki Koike, Myriam Mahnane, Rebecca Gormezano, Camille Aubret, Augustin Lusson, dessus; Sophie Iwamura, Anthony Marini, Tiphaine Coquempot, haute-contre; Pierre Vallet, Marta Paramo, Maïalen Loth, taille; Sylvia Abramowicz, Louise Pierrard, Marjolaine Cambon, quintes; Lucas Perret, viola da gamba; Cyril Poulet, Julien Hainsworth, Keiko Gomi, Élodie Peudepièce, basse de violon; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Justin Taylor, harpsichord, organ

Michel-Richard de Lalande was one of the main composers in France in the decades around 1700. He was educated as a keyboard player, but no compositions for organ or harpsichord have survived. He especially made a name for himself as a composer of sacred music, particularly grands motets for soloists, choir and orchestra. His motets were greatly appreciated by King Louis XIV under whose rule he made his career. Shortly before the Sun King's death in 1715 he had collected the main musical positions at the court. No fewer than 77 motets have come down to us and even in the late 18th century they were still considered masterpieces.

The grand motet was a specifically French genre of sacred music, whose foundations were laid by Henry Du Mont and Pierre Robert. Du Mont's early motets are in three parts: two dessus and bass. Later the scoring was extended to five parts, as in his Motets pour la chapelle du roy of 1686. Such motets comprise several sections for different scorings: solos, duets and trios (récits), choruses and instrumental sections (symphonies). The orchestra is also in five parts, and mostly plays colla voce. In the récits one or several instruments can be given an obbligato part.

The genre of the grand motet had its origin at the court and remained closely connected to it. The main purpose of sacred music there was the glorification of the monarch. This explains why in particular texts from the Book of Psalms were often set. This book from the Old Testament was particularly connected to King David, who is called in the Bible a "man after God's own heart". Worldly monarchs liked to be compared to him. It also explains why the text of the Te Deum was often set to occasions of the state and the monarchy. Monarchs considered themselves God's representatives on earth and liked the idea that the praise of God which is the core of this text, went hand in hand with praise of themselves and a celebration of their power. This and other texts which were part of the liturgy, also emphasized the fact that the monarch was firmly rooted in the Church. In France there was an additional dimension to this. Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes, states that the Messe du Roi, in which most grands motets were performed, was "an opportunity to recall the principles of Gallicanism, the religious and political doctrine which accorded only spiritual power to the Pope and championed the autonomy of the French Church, placed under the temporal authority of the King, in relation to Rome. While acknowledging the Pope's spiritual and jurisdictional primacy over the whole of Catholic Christendom, the Gallican Church limited that primacy within the realm, preferring to emphasise the authority of the bishops, who were appointed by the King."

The two textual genres just mentioned are represented here, with Ecce nunc benedicite and the Te Deum respectively. The disc opens with a setting of a third genre: free poetry on a neo-Latin text, in which sometimes elements from the Bible and liturgical texts are included. Deitatis majestatem is the earliest piece recorded here, and probably dates from 1681, before Lalande entered the service of the court. It may have been written for a special occasion and performed in the King's presence. The text is from the pen of Pierre Portes and includes verses from the Te Deum. The motet opens with a récit for bass, who is then joined by the tutti. The text says: "Come, let us fall down and woship the majesty of the Deity, the power of majesty, in the sacrament of charity". The reference to God's majesty makes this piece well suited to a royal occasion. On the words "let us fall down and worship" the music turns to a solemn mood: slow and piano. The second section opens with a recitativic passage. Lalande uses chromaticism on the phrases "it languishes and faints" and "it wishes to die". In the fifth section the contrasts in the text are reflected by differentiation in tempo and dynamics. The seventh section is a récit for tenor, who is accompanied by two transverse flutes, which suits the text: "How sweet is this food of life, how delightful this royal table". The last section opens with the text "O prodigy of goodness, O flame of love, O miracle of charity", which receives an intimate character through Lalande's setting. The second part says "May all the earth worship thee and exalt thee for evermore". Here one may expect a brilliant and extraverted setting, but it is rather intimate, in line with the overall character of this piece which is first and foremost a veneration of the Holy Sacrament.

Ecce nunc benedicite is the shortest piece in the programme. It is a setting of Psalm 133 (134 in Protestant translations): "Behold now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord". In the Roman Catholic liturgy it was sung at the eve of solemn feasts. The motet is divided into three sections: the first and third are for the tutti, the second section is a récit for four voices. Notable is here an obbligato part for a low instrument; this may be intended for bassoon, and that is also the choice of the performers, but as the score does not indicate the instruments for which the non-textual parts are scored, this has to remain speculation. This is a wonderfully intimate piece, which effectively expresses the text: "In the nights lift up your hands to the holy places, and bless ye the Lord". Lalande may have chosen a low and dark instrument for the obbligato part as a reference to the darkness of the night.

The disc ends with Lalande's setting of the Te Deum, which was written in 1684. This was by far his most famous composition, which he reworked several times, lastly in the 1720s. One of the last performances at court took place in 1725 at the occasion of the marriage of Louis XV and Marie Leszczýnska. Between 1725 and 1755 it was performed at the Concert Spirituel more than thirty times. The last version is recorded here, and one of its notable features is that the manuscript, which is thought to be an autograph, includes the precise timing of every section, which gives much information about performance practice at the time. As one may expect in a Te Deum, Lalande has scored it for an orchestra of strings and woodwind plus two trumpets and timpani. They manifest themselves right at the start, in the symphony which precedes the first verse. However, there are several verses which require a more restrained approach. And even in those parts of the text where the entire orchestra could have been involved, Lalande follows a different route. The fourth section is a setting of the Sanctus from the mass; it is remarkably restrained and set to a slow tempo. The seventh section is a récit for soprano with an obbligato part for oboe. Next follows another soprano récit of great expression and intensity, on the text "When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb". It is followed by a récit for bass, which is dominated by descending figures and a strong harmonic tension, which fits the text: "When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers". The bass is accompanied by low strings. The thirteenth section is a prayer, which explains the slow tempo. This is followed by two récits for tenor, the second with two obbligato oboes.

Considering the importance of the genre of the grand motet and in particular Lalande's contributions to it, it is surprising that they are not that well represented on disc. From that angle this release is an important addition to the discography. It offers three strongly contrasting pieces, which impressively show the quality of Lalande's writing. It is easy to understand, why he was Louis XIV's favourite composer of religious music. The brilliance of these works comes perfectly to the fore in these performances. The contributions of choir and orchestra are of the highest order. The orchestra's string section is in line with the practice of the time, which was different from the orchestra elsewhere in Europe. I am not entirely satisfied with the performances of the soloists. Cyril Auvity and Sean Clayton make the best impressions, but Emmanuelle De Negri, Dagmar Saskova and André Morsch use a little too much vibrato. That also damages the soprano duets.

However, that does not prfevent me from recommending this disc, which hopefully will result in an increasing interest in a genre, which is so characteristic of the French music scene of the ancien régime and includes some of its most attractive features.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Sean Clayton
André Morsch
Dagmar Sasková
Ensemble Aedes
Le Poème Harmonique

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