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André CAMPRA (1660 - 1744): Messe de Requiem

Salomé Haller, Sarah Gendrot, soprano; Rolf Ehlers, alto; Benoît Haller, tenor; Philip Niederberger, bass
ensemble3 vocal et instrumental
Dir: Hans Michael Beuerle

rec: Oct 29 - Nov 2, 2014, Orschwiller, Eglise Saint-Maurice
Carus - 83.391 (© 2016) (59'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Messe de Requiem

De profundis; Messe de Requiem

Jacques-Antoine Bresch, Ruth Unger, transverse flute; Lisa Immer, Sarah Immer, violin; Benjamin Lescoat, Sebastian Wohlfahrt, viola; Gesine Queyras, cello; Élodie Peudepiece, violone; Sam Chapman, lute; Martin Müller, organ

André Campra was one of the leading composers of France in the first half of the 18th century. He was born in Aix-en-Provence where he received his first music lessons from his father, who was a surgeon and violinist. In 1674 he became a choirboy at St Sauveur and began ecclesiastical studies in 1678. In the 1680s he acted as maître de chapelle in Arles and maître de musique in Toulouse. In 1694 he was given four month's leave in Paris, but did not return to Toulouse.

In his career he lived in two worlds. In his capacity as maître de musique at Notre Dame cathedral he composed sacred music, but at the same time he felt attracted to the musical theatre. After all, he was of Italian origin and felt attracted to the Italian style from early on. This explains why he introduced violins to support the choir. In 1697 his first opéra-ballet was performed, L'Europe Galante, still one of his most famous works. His activities in the musical theatre didn't go down very well with the ecclesiastical authorities. He decided to leave his post and concentrate on opera, also due to the positive reception of his theatrical works.

In the 1720s Campra returned to the composition of sacred music. He published his fifth book of motets for one to three voices and bc in 1720, fourteen years after the previous book. It was followed by collections of grands motets he had written during his time as maître de musique at Notre Dame, mostly in revised versions. Campra composed three masses, among them the Messe de Requiem. There has been much speculation about the time it was written. It has been suggested it is an early work which was revised later, after Campra had returned to sacred music. But modern research seems to indicate that it was originally written around 1722.

The Requiem comprises an Introitus in three sections, Kyrie I and II, Gradual, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Post Communion. It was tradition in France to omit Dies Irae and Libera me; Campra also omits the Benedictus. Tutti sections alternate with sections for solo voices. In the Introitus, for instance, two tutti sections embrace 'Te decet hymnus' which is for three voices. The overall atmosphere of this work is that of serenity. Obviously, the omission of the Dies irae contributes to that. That doesn't mean that there are no dark streaks, such as in the opening section of the Offertory which includes descending figures as it refers to the "pains of hell" and the "bottomless pit". In the previous section the word "non (timebit)" ([shall] not [fear]) is repeated several times, which has a quite dramatic effect, referring to Campra's skills as an opera composer.

De profundis is a setting of Psalm 129 (130) and ranks among the grands motets. This was a genre which had been more or less created in the mid-17th century by Henry Du Mont. He and other composers, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, composed a large number of such works which were intended for the Chapelle Royale. In the early decades of the 18th century Michel-Richard de Lalande was the most prolific composer of grands motets but Campra also wrote a considerable number: 49 of such works have been preserved. De profundis dates from 1723 and, according to Jean-Paul C. Mortagnier, it could have been performed to commemorate the death of Philippe d'Orléans in December of that year. "In view of its penitential character [this psalm] was reserved for masses on the anniversaries of the death of one of the members of the royal family, celebrated in the chapel of Versailles Palace (where no missa pro defunctis was ever sung or spoken, since the royal function was atemporal), and was also sung at the abbey of Saint-Denis during the ceremony of the bout de l'an to commemorate the first anniversary of Louis XIV's death". This explains why this motet ends with the text from the Requiem: "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis". This is in two sections, in the minor and the major respectively, reflecting the text. Notable are also the dissonants in the two opening sections.

Campra's sacred music doesn't suffer from a lack of interest, but it is a litte one-sided. The Messe de Requiem is available in various recordings, but most of his grands motets are hardly known. From that angle this recording doesn't add anything substantial to the discography; De profundis is the main reason that this disc deserves attention. However, the interpretation is not really convincing. The problem is not the quality of the soloists, the choir or the orchestra. It is rather the general approach which doesn't do real justice to Campra's music. First of all, the orchestra is a bit small: two violins, two violas, cello and double bass, plus two transverse flutes, lute and organ. It seems likely that the orchestra in the Chapelle Royale was larger than this. The listing also shows that the orchestra doesn't include the instruments which were commonly used in France at the time: the middle voices were not played by violas, but by haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and quinte de violon. The involvement of a male alto is certainly not justified from a historical point of view; this part should be sung by an hautecontre.

In addition, the tutti sections are not as transparent as one would wish. As a whole this performance is a bit sluggish and lacks flexibility. In short, these performances don't sound very French to my ears. I strongly prefer the recording directed by Olivier Schneebeli (, which is closer to the historical performance practices of Campra's time and, as far as I know, the only who makes use of the French string instruments mentioned above.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Benoît Haller
Salomé Haller

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