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Jean-Joseph Cassanéa DE MONDONVILLE (1711 - 1772): "Grands Motets"

Maÿlis de Villoutreys, Virginie Thomas, dessus; Mathias Vidal, haute-contre; François Joron, taille; David Witzcak, basse-taille
Choeur & Orchestre Marguerite Louise
Dir: Gaétan Jarry

rec: Nov 13 - 16, 2020 & March 28 - 30, 2021, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS063 (© 2022) (67'39")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei; Dominus regnavit; In exitu Israel

Caroline Arnaud, Aude Fenoy, Maud Gnidzaz, Béatrice Gobin, Cécile Madelin, Juliette Perret, Virginie Thomas, dessus; Romain Champion, Stephen Collardelle, Lancelot Lamotte, Marc Scaramozzino, haute-contre; Martin Candela, François-Olivier Jean, François Joron, Michael Smith, Guillaume Zabé, taille; Romain Bazola, Christophe Gautier, Matthieu Le Levreur, basse-taille; Didier Chevalier, Laurent Collobert, Sydney Fierro, basse
Nicolas Bouils, Marion Hély, Sébastien Marq, transverse flute; Neven Lesage, Jon Olaberria, oboe; Lucile Tessier, Stéphane Tamby, Alejandro Perez-Marin, Niels Collins-Coppalle, bassoon; Emmanuel Resche-Caserta, Sandrine Dupé, Sophie Iwamura, Rebecca Gormezzano, Augusta Lodge, Fiona-Émilie Poupard, David Rabinovici, Anaëlle Blanc-Verdin, Patrizio Germone, Paul Monteiro, dessus de violon; Camille Aubret, Satryo Yudomartono, Maialen Loth, haute-contre de violon; Pamela Bernfeld, Samantha Montgomery, taille de violon; Elena Andreyev, Julien Hainsworth, Garance Buretey, Hélène Richaud, Emily Robinson, Cécile Vérolles, cello; Hugo Abraham, Gautier Blondel, double bass; Loris Barrucand, Ronan Khalil, harpsichord, harpsichord, organ

The grand motet was one of the main genres of sacred music in France. It found its origin in the mid-17th century, when Henri du Mont and Pierre Robert were the first who wrote such pieces for performance during mass at the Chapelle Royale. Louis XIV loved this kind of music, and later Jean-Baptiste Lully and Michel-Richard de Lalande contributed to the genre. The latter's grands motets were particularly favoured by the Sun King. In the course of time, the grand motet developed stylistically, and when in 1725 the Concert Spirituel was founded, grands motets became a fixed part of the repertoire. Until the end of this concert series, at the time of the Revolution, many motets were performed. Among the most popular were those by Lalande and by Mondonville.

Mondonville was born in Narbonne, where his father was organist at the cathedral. It was probably he, who gave Jean-Joseph his first musical lessons, although very little is known about Mondonville's early musical education. In 1731 he settled in Paris and in 1734 he made his debut at the Concert Spirituel as violinist. In the first half of the 1730's his first two collections with chamber music were published. In 1739 he got his first important job: he was appointed violinist du Chambre et de la Chapelle du Roy. From 1744 to 1756 he acted as maître of the Chapelle Royale, but at the same time developed into one of the busiest and most celebrated violinists of his time. He regularly performed with other top-notch musicians, such as the flautist Michel Blavet, the violinist Jean-Pierre Guignon and the singer Marie Fel. In 1748 he became co-director of the Concert Spirituel, and - after the death of Pancrace Royer in 1755 - director. In this capacity he opened the ears of his audiences for the latest music, like organ concertos by Balbastre and symphonies by Gossec, but also music from abroad, such as works by Wagenseil and Holzbauer.

Mondonville has become best-known as the first composer in France, who wrote sonatas for obbligato harpsichord and violin. They were published as his Op. 3 in 1734. It is very likely that they inspired Jean-Philippe Rameau to compose his Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Also notable are the sonatas Op. 5, which are again for obbligato harpsichord with an accompaniment that can be played on the violin, but also be sung by a soprano on sacred texts in Latin.

Mondonville's operas were held in high regard. In our time, this part of his oeuvre is gradually rediscovered. Several of his operas are available on disc, such as Isbé, Les fêtes de Paphos and Titon et l'Aurore. He also wrote three oratorios, a genre that was nearly unknown in France; Marc-Antoine Charpentier had been virtually the only composer who had previously written such works. Unfortunately Mondonville's oratorios have been lost. He also composed grands motets; seventeen have come down to us. They were frequently performed at the Concert Spirituel. That goes also for the three motets included on the disc under review. Dominus regnavit dates from 1734 and was performed nearly forty times between 1739 and 1772. Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei is from 1749 and was performed nearly fifty times at the Concert Spirituel until 1769. In 1753 Mondonville wrote In exitu Israel; between 1755 and 1762 it was performed more than twenty times. In the latter year Mondonville withdrew his grands motets from the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel due to a lack of agreement with its new directors.

Dominus regnavit is a setting of Psalm 92 (93): "The Lord reigneth, he is clothed with majesty". One of the stylistic developments in the genre of the grand motet concerns the scoring. In the early motets - by Du Mont, Robert and Lully - the text is divided among a grand choeur and a petit choeur. The latter comprises up to eight voices, which take care of some sections. They usually sing in ensemble, although there are also short episodes for single voices. With time the latter were given more prominence. In Lully's latest motets we find some sections that are not very different from récits in his operas. After the turn of the century, this development continued, and Mondonville's motets are pieces for solo voices, choir and orchestra. In Dominus regnavit two sections are for one and two sopranos respectively. Due to the many performances, this motet has been preserved in different versions. It is notable that this work was also performed outside Paris. In Mondonville's music we find strong influences of the Italian style, and that comes to the fore in his depiction of elements in the text as well as the dramatic approach to episodes which invite to that. In this motet the fourth section, 'Elevaverunt flumina', is about the floods and "the voices of many waters", and that is something Mondonville did not let pass.

Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei is a setting of verses from Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God". This motet includes a section for two sopranos, and the bass also takes an important role. The fifth section includes the line "His [the sun's] going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit to the ends of it". This is depicted by the choir - whereas the bass is singing solo - by moving from the bottom to the top and back in unison.

The most dramatic motet is undoubtedly In exitu Israel, a setting of Psalm 113 (114): "When Israel went out of Egypt". The text refers to what happened in nature when Israel was freed from its captivity in Egypt. The second and third sections are about the sea and the Jordan, and the movement of the water is depicted by repeated notes in the tutti. The fifth section is for bass with choir; in the first two lines only the low voices of the latter are involved. It is a highly dramatic section, in which the sea and the earth are adressed. In the sixth section there is a strong contrast between the text of the first two lines and that of the third and fourth, and that comes off very well. The same is then case in the closing section. Remarkable is this motet's opening: after an instrumental introduction the low voices sing the plainchant melody, which is then taken over by the entire choir in fauxbourdon.

In this motet we notice the influence of the Italian style and of opera. Hervé Audéon, in his liner-notes, feels the need to defend Mondonville, as it were, against those who consider him responsible for the decline of religious music in France. His line of argument is that, through the fusion of the musical styles of his time, Mondonville "intends to sublimate and place the divine word on its rightful level". That is one way to look at it. I don't see the need for a judgement of Mondonville's grands motets. Let us just observe that in his motets the sacred and the secular are integrated, which was quite common at the time. The sacred music written in Italy at that time was not fundamentally different. Whatever one thinks about this subject, one can admire the way Mondonville was able to express the text in a meaningful manner that does not miss its goal. The listeners at the time were impressed about his motets, and that seems justified.

In 2016 Glossa released a recording of four motets by Mondonville, directed by György Vashegyi. Fortunately they are all different from what we get here. It is a shame that Gaétan Jarry selected two motets that were already recorded by Les Arts Florissants (In exitu Israel and Dominus regnavit). Why did he not choose some other motets from the ten that - as far as I know - have not been recorded before? Let's hope more of Mondonville's motets will be recorded in due course. The performances here are pretty good. The choir and the orchestra are impressive, and the dramatic features of these motets are converted to the full. The soloists are doing a good job, but it is regrettable that most of them use a bit too much vibrato.

A few years ago the label Château de Versailles Spectacles has started a project of recording grands motets, and so far five discs have been released: two with motets by Lully, one with motets by Pierre Robert and one with the complete motets by Rameau (which I am going to review later). This Mondonville disc is a worthwhile part of this project, which is one of the most interesting of recent years. May many follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Maÿlis de Villoutreys
Virginie Thomas
Mathias Vidal
David Witczak
Ensemble Marguerite Louise

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