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

Chantal Santon-Jeffereya, Daniela Skorkab, soprano; Mathias Vidal, hautecontrec; Jeffrey Thompson, hautecontre, tenord; Alain Buet, baritonee
Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi

rec: Nov 2 - 4, 2015, Budapest, Müpa Budapest (Béla Bartók National Concert Hall)
Glossa - GCD 923508 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.36'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cantate Dominoabcde; De profundisbce; Magnus Dominusabd; Nisi Dominusbcde

The Pièces de clavecin en concerts by Jean-Philippe Rameau belong to the most famous instrumental works of the 18th century. The composer was inspired by a set of six sonatas for keyboard and violin which his colleague Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville had published as his op. 3 in 1734. It is these sonatas for which he is best known. They are available in various recordings and so are his sonatas op. 5, which are scored for keyboard and voice or violin, and are settings of sacred texts in Latin. In comparison Mondonville's grands motets are not that often performed and recorded.

Mondonville was born in Narbonne, where his father was organist of the Cathedral. From him he received his first musical education. In 1731 he settled in Paris and made his debut as a violinist in the Concert Spirituel. The latter organisation was to play a major role in his career: he often acted there as a performer but from 1748 he also worked as one of its administrators and in 1755 he became its director, a position he held until 1762. At the same time he was sous-maître of the Chapelle Royale. As a composer he contributed to almost any genre of his time, with the exception of the chamber cantata.

His grands motets were among his most-frequently performed works. This genre had been established by Jean-Baptiste Lully; the next master of the grand motet was Michel-Richard de Lalande whose compositions in this genre were especially appreciated by Louis XIV. It seems likely that Mondonville's motets were also originally written for performances at the Chapelle Royale but such works were also increasingly performed in secular surroundings, such as the Concert Spirituel. No fewer than forty performances of De profundis are documented for the period between 1748 and 1762.

If you know the grands motets of Lully or Lalande you will notice some considerable differences between them and Mondonville's. The basic structure is the same: the text - all four are from the Book of Psalms - are divided into a number of sections, scored for tutti (choir) or one or two soloists and orchestra. Polyphony is still playing its part but is far less prominent than in older motets. The choruses include various sections of homophony, and there are also a number of passages in which the choir (or one of its sections, for instance the high voices) sings in unison. Some choruses are also quite dramatic, for instance 'Ipsi videntes' from Magnus Dominus: "With wonder they thus behold, confounded and frenzied; trembling seizes them". Another example is 'Sicut sagittae in manu potentes' from Nisi Dominus: "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, such are the sons born in your youth". Mondonville's settings are comparable to the way such texts were set by Handel or Italian composers of his time. It is in these choruses and also in his handling of the orchestra to illustrate the text that the strong Italian influence in his oeuvre comes to the fore. Very effective is the way Mondonville has set the closing section of Nisi Dominus: "Non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta" (His cause will not be set aside when his enemies clamour at the gate). The text is sung by the baritone with the choir repeating "non, non, non". Mondonville sometimes adapts the scoring to the text. In Magnus Dominus the fifth section refers to the "daughters of Judah"; it is sung by the high voices from the choir, with the violins and transverse flutes of the orchestra, without basso continuo.

The solos are often quite virtuosic; some require a large tessitura, especially from the hautecontre. 'Cum dederit' from Nisi Dominus is a beautiful solo for the hautecontre, with two obbligato bassoons. 'Deus in domibus' (Magnus Dominus) is a duet of soprano and obbligato oboe, 'Exultabunt sancti in gloria' from Cantate Domino is a solo for baritone with an obbligato part for bassoon or cello; the latter is chosen here.

If one listens to these motets one realises that much has changed since Lully and Lalande. The Italian influence has increased, counterpoint has lost its dominance and sacred music shows increasing influences from secular music. There is little in these dramatic works which reminds us of the restraint which was one of the features of French culture under Louis XIV.

Györgyi Vashegyi is responsible for these overall very fine performances. It seems to me that the choir with 35 voices is too large; it is probably impossible to know exactly how many singers were involved in performances in the Chapelle Royale or the Concert Spirituel but choirs were generally not that large. As a result the choral sections are not as transparent as one would wish. In some of the contributions of the soloists a slight vibrato creeps in which is regrettable. But that hardly damages my positive impression of these performances. The solo voices are all excellently suited to this repertoire. Mathias Vidal is especially admirable. The Latin texts are pronounced as one assumes they were at the time, with a French rather than an Italian accent. The orchestra uses the instruments common at the time: no violas but haute-contres and tailles de violon instead. The quinte de violon of previous times had disappeared and the basse de violon had been replaced by cellos. French orchestral scores are colourful and that comes well off here.

This is a major contribution to our knowledge and - hopefully - appreciation of late specimens of a genre which was very important in France under the ancien régime.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Chantal Santon-Jefferey
Daniela Skorka
Mathias Vidal
Orfeo Orchestra


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