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René Drouard DE BOUSSET (1703 - 1760): Spiritual cantatas

[I] "Cantates spirituelles"
Le Tendre Amour

rec: Oct 6 - 9, 2012, Mura, Iglesia de Sant Martí
Brilliant Classics - 94288 (© 2013) (55'09")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Michiko Takahashi, sopranoabf; Bernhard Hansky, baritonee; Sébastien Perrin, transverse flute; Katy Elkin, oboe; María Gomis, Adriana Alcaide, violin; Lixsania Fernández, viola da gamba; Krishnasol Jiménez, theorbo; Esteban Mazer, harpsichord

[II] "Judith and other Sacred Cantatas"
Brandywine Baroque
Dir: Karen Flint
rec: June 2014, Wilmington, Del., The Barn at Flintwoods
Plectra Music - PL21502 (© 2015) (70'08")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Laura Heimes, sopranobcdg; Tony Boutté, tenorcf; Eileen Grycky, transverse flute; Martin Davids, Edwin Huizinga, violin; John Mark Ruizendaal, Donna Fournier, viola da gamba; Karen Flint, harpsichord

Abrahama [2]; Chante Sion (Sixième Cantate Tirée du Pseaume 147)b [1]; Elevons nos espritsc [2]; Judithd [1]; Le Naufrage de Pharaone [1]; Maison du Dieu vivant (Première Cantate Tirée du Pseaume 83)f [1]; Tobieg [2]

[1] Premier Recueil de Cantates Spirituelles, 1739; [2] Second Recueil de Cantates Spirituelles, 1740

Score Premier Recueil de Cantates Spirituelles

One of the most popular genres of the Italian baroque was the chamber cantata, mostly scored for solo voice. As the Italian style increased its influence in France in the early decades of the 18th century this began to take root here as well. Several of the best composers of their time contributed, such as Clérambault and Campra. The subjects were mostly of a mythological nature, although the cantatas usually ended with a kind of moral. However, cantatas with a spiritual content were very rare. Only three composers wrote such cantatas: Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Sébastien de Brossard and René Drouard de Bousset. It seems likely that the latter was inspired by the cantatas by the former two composers. Some of his cantatas have the same subjects as those by Jacquet de la Guerre and De Brossard. That is the case, for instance, with Judith, which has been recorded previously by Le Tendre Amour on their disc "Le passage de la mer rouge". The same subject was used for a cantata by Jacquet de la Guerre.

De Bousset is a largely unknown quantity to modern audiences. However, in his own time he was quite famous, in particular as an organ virtuoso. He was the son of Jean-Baptiste de Bousset (1662-1725) who acted as maître de musique in several académies. As a composer he was best known for his airs sérieux et à boire. In 1731 René Drouard also published a collection of such airs. He seems to have regretted this as he later broke the plates of these pieces. That had everything to do with his development in religious matters. He became heavily involved with a religious sect, the convulsionnaires. The name derives from convulsions which they claimed to perform under divine inspiration. In particular during the reign of Louis XV they found many followers in aristocratic circles. According to the 19th-century musicologist François-Joseph Fétis De Bousset was "one of (the) most ardent convulsionnaires and most zealous partisans of their miracles".

His strong religious feelings could well explain his choice of subjects and texts for his cantatas. Two collections were printed. The first dates from 1739 and includes six cantatas. Three are settings of paraphrases from Psalms: 83 (84) (Maison du Dieu) and 147 (Chante, Sion and 121 (122) (Nous reverons donc). Unfortunately both ensembles have recorded the same two. Maison du Dieu is about someone longing to be close to God and his temple. It begins with a recitative which is followed by an aria with the indication tres tendrement. It has an obbligato part for viola da gamba. In the second aria the protagonist asks for God's support; it is described as gravement et gai. The paraphrase on Psalm 147 begins with a prélude for two instruments, performed with transverse flute and violin (Le Tendre Amour) or two violins (Brandywine Baroque) respectively. Sion - a name often used in the Book of Psalms for the Jewish people - is incited to praise God as he is their help and saves them from their enemies. The first aria includes many dynamic indications: doux and fort. The following recitative says that the whole creation, including the winds and the waters, are under his command. Natural phenomena are vividly illustrated in the vocal part and the basso continuo. The last aria then again urges the people to thank God for his gifts. It is due to the depictions in the vocal and instrumental parts that this cantata has some theatrical traits.

The three remaining cantatas from the 1739 collection are Judith, Le Triomphe de la Vertu (The triumph of virtue) and Le Naufrage de Pharaon (The downfall of Pharao). The subject of Judith is one of the most popular of the baroque era, and taken from the book named after her, one of the Apocrypha of the Bible. It is a dramatic piece, especially the third recitative which describes how Judith kills Holofernes. The last aria is a song of praise to God. It begins with the words "bruyante trompette, seconde nos voix" (loud trumpet, support our voices). The trumpet is imitated by the two violins, playing either in unison or in alternation; there are also fanfare figures in the voice and the basso continuo part.

The subject of Le Naufrage de Pharaon is the same as Jacquet de la Guerre used in Le passage de la mer rouge which appears at the disc of Le Tendre Amour I mentioned before. The exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt, under the guidance of Moses, from the book of Genesis, is treated here in a dramatic way. De Bousset's cantata begins with an instrumental prélude: the upper part is to be played by violins in unison, apparently depicting the waves of the Red Sea. The obbligato viola da gamba repeatedly plays arpeggios, expressing the fear of the people when they realise that Pharao with his armies is after them. It is followed by a recitative: "Quelle effroyable nuit" (what horrible night). Here and in the ensuing aria the protagonist urges the people to ask God for help who will destroy impiety. In the next recitative and aria God's intervention is described: the waters of the Red Sea are separated so that the people can pass. When the Egyptian armies come to catch them, the waters flow back and the Egyptians drown. The cantata closes with a recitative and aria singing the praise of Israel's God.

The two present recordings include three cantatas from the second collection which dates from 1740. Le Tendre Amour closes its programme with Abraham, the first patriarch who is asked by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. The cantata comprises three pairs of recitative and aria. Unfortunately it is impossible to say anything about the text and the way De Bousset treats it. The Brilliant Classics disc comes without lyrics, and the booklet omits any description of the cantatas' content. I found the first collection of six cantatas on the internet, but I couldn't find the second. The lack of lyrics and translations is a serious shortcoming of a production like this.

Another biblical character is the subject of Tobie but this time from one of the Apocrypha, the Book of Tobit. A description of this book's content is given by Wikipedia. The last aria includes the moral of the story of this righteous Israelite: "Free from evil-doers, an innocent victim: Les us raise our songs to this model of perfect virtue". This cantata comprises three pairs of recitative and aria. Brandywine Baroque opens with Élevons nos esprits which is a cantate en forme de dialogue. However, the two voices (soprano and tenor) don't represent any characters. It is a cantata in praise of God which opens with a duet in three sections, separated by ritornellos: "Let us raise our spirits unto the Invisible One". It is followed by another duet, preceded by a prélude. The fifth section has the indication musette and is a song of praise about the beauties of the earth. This is continued in the last aria which includes some reminiscences of Psalm 18 (19).

We can only be grateful that these two ensembles bring the oeuvre of René Drouard de Bousset to our attention. It is one of the composers who plays a marginal role - if any - in present-day music life. These cantatas are very well-written: the Psalm paraphrases are mostly lyrical and of an uplifting character, albeit with some sharp edges here and there, whereas the other cantatas are more dramatic. In particular Le Naufrage de Pharaon shows impressively what a good composer can achieve with just a single voice and some instruments.

The performances are very different. Le Tendre Amour's disc is in every way outstanding. Michiko Takahashi has a very fine and clear voice, and shows her full mastery of the style of the French baroque. Her ornamentation is tasteful and her diction and pronunciation immaculate. The same goes for Bernhard Hansky who delivers a truly theatrical interpretation of Le Naufrage de Pharaon. In his recitatives he is a real storyteller, giving a vivid description of the events. The instrumentalists also contribute to these performances resulting in a compelling disc. In comparison Brandywine Baroque's performances are pretty dull. I don't find the voices of Laura Heimes and Tony Boutté particularly interesting or attractive but that is a matter of taste. Both sing with a slight vibrato but as it is not very obtrusive that is not the main problem. It is rather that they do so little with the text. The opening recitative of Maison du Dieu includes the lines: "Far from you all my heart is impassioned! My body languishes, and my soul is caught up in desire". But Boutté sings them as if he were reading a news bulletin. The instrumentalists are playing nicely but lack any real involvement in the cantatas' content. That is so much different in the performances by Le Tendre Amour. There is much more differentation in dynamics and tempo and sometimes the singer is slowing down in order to increase the tension. It is telling that the tempi of the two arias from Maison du Dieu take about the same time in Brandywine Baroque's performance: 4'20" vs 4'06", despite the difference in content and character which is expressed in the descriptions - "très tendrement" and "gracieusement et gay" respectively. That is reflected by the tempi in Le Tendre Amour's performance: 6'12" vs 3'20".

I should not forget to mention that the singers of Le Tendre Amour make use of a historical pronunciation of French, known as français restitué. I have only sporadically heard this practice, most recently in a disc by the Ludovice Ensemble. It is a worthwile attempt to come closer to the world in which these cantatas were created. In comparison Brandywine Baroque opted for a modern pronunciation, although it wouldn't surprise me if they hadn't given the whole issue any thought. As much as I welcome their recording of additional cantatas from Bousset's pen they are no match for Le Tendre Amour as far as the interpretation is concerned.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Brandywine Baroque
Le Tendre Amour

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