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Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657 - 1726): Les Fontaines de Versailles - Le Concert d'Esculape

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles
Dir: Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs

rec: Jan 27 - Feb 4, 2019, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
CPO - 555 097-2 (© 2020) (72'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Grande Pièce en G-Ré-Sol (S 161); Le Concert d'Esculape (S 134); Les Fontaines de Versailles (S 133)

Molly Netter, Margot Roodb, Teresa Wakima, soprano; Sophie Michaux, Anthea Pichanick, Virginia Warnken, mezzo-soprano; Brian Giebler, Jason McStoots, Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, Olivier Laquerre, John Taylor Ward, baritone
Gonzalo X. Ruiz, Kathryn Montoya, recorder, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bass recorder, bassoon; Robert Mealy, Cynthia Roberts, violin; Cynthia Roberts, Laura Jeppesen, viola; Phoebe Carrai, cello; Paul O'Dette, theorbo; Stephen Stubbs, theorbo, guitar; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, organ

1682 and 1683 were important years in the lives of Louis XIV and Michel-Richard de Lalande respectively. In 1682 the Sun King moved his court to Versailles, which meant that it de facto also became the centre of government. In April 1683 Lalande was appointed one of four sous-maîtres de Chapelle, thanks to Louis' intervention on his behalf. These two facts come together in the largest piece on the disc under review, Les Fontaines de Versailles.

It has the character of what in Italy was known as a serenata - a piece in which a particular person was celebrated and his virtues were displayed. It was performed in April 1683 to celebrate the arrival of the Sun King in Versailles. The lyrics of occasional pieces are often not of great quality; examples are the texts of the Welcome Odes which were set by Henry Purcell. However, that did not cause any trouble to a composer of his qualities. Lalande had an easier task, as the text of Les Fontaines de Versailles was written by Antoine Morel, a singer and poet, who later wrote several opera librettos. This piece was his first, and he came up with the original idea to bring to life the statues of gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman antiquity as they were present in the Versailles gardens. As Gilbert Blin, in his liner-notes, sums up: "Gods and goddesses honor the king's arrival in Versailles and respond with fervor to his keen interest in its palace and gardens." Louis was personally involved in the construction of the gardens. "Louis XIV himself, updating his itinerary at intervals, ultimately wrote many versions of his own Manière de montrer les Jardins de Versailles. The dramatic chain of the appearances by the gods in Les Fontaines de Versailles seems to be, in 1683, a kind of operatic version of such a 'walker's guide.'"

The work includes ten different roles, which sing solos and ensembles, and together the choruses. The first récit by Flore says much about the tone of the piece: "Louis, attended by games and love, is bringing back springtime". Another character, Latone, later says: "Come admire a King whose virtue, even better than yours, will spread the light throughout the whole world". This was the stuff serenate were made of, and we also find such eulogies in the prologues of operas by French composers under Louis XIV, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The second work is something different. Le Concert d'Esculape also dates from 1683; it was first performed in May of that year. The author of the libretto - or rather poem, as there the soloists don't represent particular characters - is not known, but may have been Antoine Morel again. Esculape is the French name of Asclepius, the legendary physician from Homeric times, who was considered the 'inventor' of medicine. In the course of time he had turned into an allegorical character. "Asclepius had become the symbol of medicine and its evolution, so that a compliment to this tutelary figure was understood as being praise to the progress of medical science under Louis XIV's rule." (Blin)

There was a specific reason for the composition and performance of this piece in praise of Asclepius. In May 1683 the court wanted to celebrate the recovery of a person "dear to the Crown". That person is not mentioned, but was in all likelyhood the Dauphine, Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria, wife of the crown prince. The score was copied by André Danican Philidor the elder, music librarian of Louis XIV. The title page includes the phrase "Remerciement de monsieur philidor a Monsieur Moreau medecin de madame la dauphine mis en musique par monsieur delalande." From this one may conclude that this piece was intended as a tribute to the physician Jean-Baptiste Moreau, who in September 1681 had been chosen as the first physician to the Dauphine. He is known to have been an expert in obstetrics, and this explains his connection to the Dauphine. It was hoped that she would give birth to one or more sons, which was of utmost interest for the continuation of the monarchy. However, the Dauphine's health was fragile, and she suffered several miscarriages. It may well be thanks to Moreau that she was able to give birth to three sons. The eldest, the Duc de Bourgogne, was born in August 1682, a fact that was celebrated throughout the kingdom. At the time Le Concert d'Esculape was performed, the Dauphine was pregnant again.

The text is not sparing of compliments. After the overture, a soloist sings: "Today Asclepius triumphs over the grave, what a new wonder, what do we not owe to the benefits he brings us!" The author of the poem did not forget to sing the praise of Louis as well: "He is the choice of the greatest of Monarchs, by which his merits shine all the brighter". The piece ends with a chorus: "Let us proclaim his virtues and let none be surprised at the sensitive employment he practices today, for the health of someone so dear to the Crown one could never choose someone other than he".

Lalande's appointment as one of the sous-maîtres de Chapelle was the start of a brilliant musical career. In the next decades he collected nearly every musical position that was of any importance, and he was the favourite composer of the Sun King. Louis especially appreciated the many grands motets which Lalande wrote for performance in the Chapelle Royale. However, he also contributed to the entertainment at court, such as the two pieces recorded here. In between we hear some instrumental music which was part of the Symphonies pour les soupers du Roy, compiled by Philidor in 1695. The Grande Pièce en G-Ré-Sol was a favourite of Louis, as the reprint of 1736 indicates. There this piece is called Fantaisie ou Caprice que le Roy demandoit souvent (fantasy or capriccio which the King often asked for). The symphonies consist of instrumental movements from pieces for the theatre Lalande had written, and some movements from Les Fontaines de Versailles also found their way into this collection.

The booklet to this disc includes an impressive list of productions which CPO has released with the Boston Early Music Festival ensembles under the direction of Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. French music from the time of Louis XIV is an important part of their activities, either in the annual Boston Early Music Festival or on disc. The recordings usually follow performances at the festival. The booklets include pictures of these live performances, and suggest a historical approach to staging and acting. That makes it all the more surprising that the performers stick to a modern pronunciation of French. In the early days of historical performance practice that was very common, but with time I have come to find it harder to accept. I also wonder why the lower string parts are played on viola and cello, which are basically Italian instruments, rather than the instruments used in France at the time, with, for instance, a basse de violon instead of the cello.

The singing and playing in general are very good, as usual, and one can only appreciate that such fine works as those by Lalande performed here, which are virtually unknown, are available on disc now. That said, the performances of the soloists are uneven. Some are stylistically entirely convincing; Molly Netter, Virginia Warnken and Olivier Laquerre are some of the best in this department. Others use too much vibrato, which is disappointing from a historical angle and also unpleasant to listen too. It is a matter of good fortune that the ensembles don't suffer too much from it, and that the solos are relatively short.
,br> On balance, each lover of French baroque music should investigate this production. It whets the appetite for more pieces from Lalande's oeuvre. If one listens to this disc, it is easy to understand, why Louis XIV was so fond of his music.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Boston Early Music Festival

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