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CD reviews

Charles-Hubert GERVAIS (1671 - 1744): Grands Motets

[I] "Grands Motets"
Olivia Doray, Katalin Szutrély, dessus; Cyrille Dubois, haute-contre; Mathias Vidal, tenor; David Witczak, basse-taille
Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi
rec: Sept 2 - 4, 2021, Pannonhalma Monastery
Glossa - GCD 924013 (© 2022) (72'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Exaudi Deus; Judica me Deus; O filii et filiae; Te Deum; Usquequo Domine

[II] "Grands motets pour Louis XV"
Marie Perbost, Déborah Cachet, dessus; Nicholas Scott, haute-contre; Paco Garcia, taille; Benoît Arnould, basse-taille
Les Ombres
Dir: Margaux Blanchard, Sylvain Sartre
rec: Sept 11 - 13, 2021, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS073 (© 2022) (57'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Jubilate Deo; Miserere; Super flumina Babilonis


During the 17th century, European countries saw different developments in sacred music, due to political and religious differences. In Germany Protestant composers wrote sacred concertos, and towards the end of the century started to compose cantatas, under the influence of the Italian style. In England the main genre was the anthem, mostly settings of biblical texts, alongside services, whose texts were taken from the Book of Common Prayer. In France, the most importance genre was the motet, which came in two forms: the petit motet, for one or several solo voices and basso continuo, and the grand motet, mostly a setting of Psalms, for solo voices, choir and orchestra. The latter showed some similarity with the English verse anthem, in which verses were alternately scored for solo voice(s) and choir.

The earliest composers of grands motets were Henry du Mont and Pierre Robert; Jean-Baptiste Lully followed in their footsteps. In their motets the solo parts were rather short and largely integrated in the musical fabric, as was the case in the English verse anthem. In the course of time, the solo parts became more independent and technically more demanding. Another development was the increasing influence of the Italian style and of contemporary opera. These developments come together in the grands motets of Charles-Hubert Gervais.

Gervais was the son of a valet de chambre at the court of Philippe, Duke of Chartres (from 1701 Duke of Orléans), where he received his first musical training and was appointed musicien ordinaire de la Musique de son Altesse in 1697. He participated in the composition of two operas and later made a name for himself with operas of his own pen, which found wide approval, especially Hypermnestre (1716; recorded by György Vashegyi - Glossa, 2019), which was still performed in 1765. Gervais also composed airs and cantatas, which were performed in the salons of the higher echelons of society.

Between 1715 and 1722 the Duke of Orléans was the Regent for the young Louis XV, who was still underage. In 1715, after the death of Louis XIV, the court had moved to Paris, and the activities of the royal musical establishment were severely reduced. This changed when Louis XV, at the age of thirteen, was crowned the new king, and a few months before this event the court moved back to Versailles. The Duke of Orléans aimed at restoring music life to its former glory. To that end he appointed new people in the three main bodies of music: the Chambre, the Chapelle and the Écurie. For the former he appointed François Colin de Blamont and André Cardinal Destouches, for the second Nicolas Bernier, André Campra and Charles-Hubert Gervais. They were issued three of the four three-month periods of the position of sous-maître of the Chapelle. The fourth was in the hands of Michel-Richard de Lalande, who was asked to give up the other three, which had been in his hands for many years. The Duke of Orléans also wanted a renewal of the repertoire of the Chapelle, which was dominated by grands motets by Lalande, which had been the favourite works of Louis XIV.

Until recently, very few specimens of the grand motet written by other composers than Lully, Campra and Lalande were available on disc. Even the pioneers of the genre, Du Mont and Robert, were badly represented on disc. That has changed, and the start of a series of recordings of such works on the Château de Versailles Spectacle label is a significant token of the increase in interest in this repertoire. It has resulted in the recording of such works by, for instance, Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, and the present recording of motets by Gervais. György Vashegy, who has become a specialist in French music, and has recorded quite a number of operas, seems to have extended his interest to sacred repertoire as well. It is a matter of good fortune that these two discs include entirely different repertoire. This means that now no fewer than eight grands motets by Gervais are available on disc, probably for the very first time.

Vashegyi opens with Exaudi Deus, a setting of Psalm 54 (55), whose opening verse immediate shows Gervais's skills in setting a text an expressive manner: "Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication. Attend unto me, and hear me." The second section includes lines of a contrasting content, and that is effectively translated into music. The third section - "My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me" - is a solo for bass, in which harmony is used to express the feelings of the poet. In the next section the words "volabo" ( I fly away) and "fugiens" (fleeing) are depicted with musical figures.

O filii et filiae is a hymn for Eastertide: "O sons and daughters of the King, whom heavenly hosts in glory sing, today the grave has lost its sting!" Each stanza closes with four Alleluias. The entire setting is based on the plainchant melody, which is easily recognizable in most of the stanzas. The fifth stanza describes how John the apostle outran Peter and arrived first at Jesus's tomb, which is illustrated with a quick tempo. The eight stanza describes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas, who finds it hard to believe that Jesus is risen. The latter is represented by the bass, Thomas by the tenor.

Judica me is a setting of Psalm 42 (43), and opens with a dark verse, but overall is of a rather uplifting character. There is a strong contrast between the two lines of the penultimate section. Usquequo Domine, a setting of Psalm 12 (13), is very different, as the dark opening verse indicates: "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?"

The last work is a setting of the Te Deum; this text was always performed at solemn occasions (marriages, births, military victories). Gervais had written a Te Deum in 1721, before his appointment at the Chapelle. Whether that is the one performed here is not mentioned in the liner-notes. As one may expect, it is a setting of a jubilant nature, partly thanks to the participation of a trumpet and timpani.

One of the hallmarks of Gervais's style is his use of keys for expressive reasons. The second disc includes two notable examples. In his setting of the Miserere, one of the penitential psalms, which at the court in France was sung on the anniversaries of the deaths of members of the royal family, Gervais uses no fewer than seven different keys in the major and minor. Other devices which he applies in order to express the text are chromaticism, dissonances, wordpainting and contrasts in instrumentation and melodic motifs.

Super flumina Babilonis is a lament of the Jews in captivity in Babylon (Psalm 136/137). Whereas most composers emphasize the sad tenor of the text, Gervais's setting includes some quite belligerent elements, reflecting the anger of the Jews, such as in the third and the last sections. The dialogue between the Jews and their captives is also emphasized. In such cases we meet Gervais, the composer of operas.

Not only are the solo parts mostly more independent than in earlier specimens of the grand motet genre, it is also notable that in these sections several instruments play obbligato parts, such as transverse flute and oboe.

Both discs make crystal clear that Gervais was an excellent composer. As he has left about forty motets, there is still much to discover, and there is every reason to hope that further motets will become available on disc. We should welcome these two recordings, even though they leave mixed impressions. I am happy with the recording by Les Ombres, which I find stylistically the most convincing of the two. The soloists are generally very good, and I am especially impressed by Nicholas Scott. The line-up of the two ensembles is more modest than that of Vashegyi's forces, and that favours the transparency of the tutti sections. In comparison, those parts are a bit too massive and too dense in Vashegyi's performance, which makes the text less easy to understand. Again, the haute-contre makes the best inpression: Cyrille Dubois sings his parts very nicely. The two sopranos also do well, but Matthias Vidal is disappointing because of his vibrato; David Witzcak is not free from that either. In both recordings the expressive and the dramatic features come off pretty well.

All in all, I recommend both discs which are really important additions to the catalogue and put Gervais on the map. It is a name to remember.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Benoît Arnould
Déborah Cachet
Cyrille Dubois
Marie Perbost
Mathias Vidal
David Witczak
Les Ombres
Orfeo Orchestra & Purcell Choir

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