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Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657 - 1726): "Grands Motets"

Chantal Santon-Jeffery, soprano; Reinoud Van Mechelen, haute-contre; François Joron, taille; Lisandro Abadie, basse-taille
Les Pages & Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles; Collegium Marianum
Dir: Olivier Schneebeli

rec: July 5 & 7, 2017 (live), Versailles, Château (Chapelle Royale)
Glossa - GCD 924301 (© 2018) (78'41")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

De profundis (S 23)a; Dominus regnavit (S 65); Venite exultemus (S 58)

[Pages] Justin Baudot (soloa), Fleur Belin, Sammy Filée, Lena Genton, Paul Goullet de Rugy, Clélia Horvat, Guillaume Houssin, Charles Martin-Prevel, Timothée de Touzalin, Clément Peaucelle, Eléonore de Quénetain, Ninon Vengeon
[Chantres] Clémence Carry, Danaé Monnié, Sarah Rodriguez, Fanny Valentin, dessus; Jean-Sébastien Beauvais, Alexandre Cerveux, Fernando Escalona (soloa), haute-contre; Marco Angioloni, Paul Belmonte, Noé Leenhardt, Thomas Lefrançois, Antonin Rondepierre, taille; Lucas Bacro, Raphaël Bleibtreu, Gaspard François, Imanol Iraola, Guillaume Vicaire, basse-taille & basse
[CM] Jana Semerádová, Martina Bernásková, transverse flute; Petra Ambrosi, Inge Marg, oboe; Krystof Lada, bassoon; Stéphane Tamby, bass bassoon 'à la quarte', bass flute; Lenka Torgersen, Plamena Nikitassova, Vojtech Jakl, Cecilie Valtrová, Klaudia Matlak, Katarzyna Szewczyk, violin; Benjamin Chenier, haute-contre de violon; Andreas Torgersen, taille de violon; Vojtech Semerád, quinte de violon; Hana Fleková, viola da gamba; Petr Hamouz, Petr Maslan, cello; Jan Krejca, theorbo; Fabien Armengaud, harpsichord, organ

The motet was one of the main genres of sacred music of the renaissance. In most countries it gradually went out of fashion during the 17th century. That was different in France. In the mid-17th century Henry du Mont and Pierre Robert laid the foundation of two kinds of motet: the petit motet, scored for solo voice(s) and basso continuo, sometimes with additional melody instruments, and the grand motet, a large-scale work for solo voices, choir and orchestra.

Both genres were closely connected to the court. Its purpose was not only religious, but also the glorification of the monarch, Louis XIV. That goes especially for the grand motet. Its large scoring in itself reflected the power of the Sun King, but that was supported by the choice of texts. These were mostly taken from the Book of Psalms, and as many Psalms are from the pen of King David, who is called in the Bible a "man after God's own heart", worldly monarchs liked to be compared to him. Louis XIV was no exception.

After Du Mont and Robert, Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of the composers of the next generation who contributed to the genre of the grand motet. However, it was especially Michel-Richard de Lalande who further developed the genre. He was educated as a keyboard player, but no compositions for organ or harpsichord have survived. He especially made a name for himself as a composer of sacred music. Shortly before the Sun King's death in 1715 he had collected the main musical positions at the court. His grands motets were the favourite works of Louis XIV. No fewer than 77 motets have come down to us and even in the late 18th century they were still considered masterpieces. They were not only performed in a liturgical setting in the chapel at Versailles, but also in public concerts at the Concert Spirituel. During the first 45 years of the Concert Spirituel's existence there were more than 590 performances of 41 different grands motets from Lalande's pen.

The performer of Lalande's motets has to deal with the issue of different versions. Lalande constantly revised them, and 29 motets exist in two versions; some in even more. In addition there are motets, which include movements that have been preserved in alternative versions. The present recording includes three motets: one from Lalande's early period, the other two from a later stage in his career.

De profundis, a setting of Psalm 129 (130), and one of the penitential psalms, dates from 1689. As Louis XIV had forbidden Lalande from making any changes to his motets, the composer revised this work shortly after the Sun King's death. However, it is performed here in its original version. As so many grands motets, it opens with a récit for a solo voice, this time the bass. The opening words are set to low notes, but then the words "clamavi ad te" (I have cried to you) are illustrated by a rising figure. Both "profundis" and "clamavi" are followed by a pause. The same happens in the third verse after "quis" (Domine quis sustinebit - Lord, who shall abide it). This psalm was part of the funeral mass, and this explains why at the end of the psalm the opening words of the Requiem mass - "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" - are included. Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes, suggests this motet may have been performed in the royal necropolis in Saint-Denis, on October 23, 1715, during the king's funeral. This phrase is performed by the choir at a slow speed, creating a strong sense of solemnity. However, it is followed by a much more uplifting passage, sung by the haute-contre, in a vivid rhythm, on the words "et lux perpetua luceat eis" (and may perpetual light shine upon them). In contrast to other motets, De profundis ends with the doxology.

The other two motets are from a later date and show stylistic changes. In De profundis the choir is involved in every verse. This setting includes some solo episodes, but in most verses two or three soloists are involved, either together or in succession. In comparison the role of the solo voices has been extended in later motets. In Dominus regnavit, four of the eight verses are for solo voices, without any participation of the choir. Three are for one voice - the last solo verse, for soprano, is particularly long (here 5'30") - and one for two voices. Lalande treats the text with more freedom in that he sometimes returns to earlier verses or extracts from them, and combines several verses in one section. He keeps the traditional five-part texture, but gives more weight to the second violin part and sometimes combines two of the middle voices.

Both late motets on this disc have been restored to their original versions. Venite exultemus, which opens this disc, was first performed in January 1701. It is a setting of Psalm 94 (95): "Come, let us praise the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to God, our salvation". It is a song of praise, but includes some dark strains, especially in the closing verses. The 6th verse, 'Venite, adoremus', is rather restrained: "Come, let us adore, and fall down before our God; let us weep before the Lord that made us". Here Lalande uses harmonic means to express the text. Again the motet starts with a récit for solo voice, this time for soprano.

Dominus regnavit, on the other hand, opens with a choral section. This setting of Psalm 96 (97) was originally written in 1704 and became one of Lalande's favourite motets. Until 1770 it was performed around fifty times at the Concert Spirituel. It is a psalm which celebrates God's power: "The Lord has reigned, let the earth rejoice; let many islands be glad". There is quite some text illustration in the second verse: "Clouds and darkness are round about him". The words "nubes" (clouds) and "caligo" (darkness) are followed by a pause. The second half of this section is vividly depicted in the music: "Before him will go a fire, and will scorch his enemies round about". Another eloquent example of text expression is the sixth section, 'Confundantur omnes': "Let them all be confounded" - the latter word is emphasized by a number of repeats; the section ends with the choir shouting "confundantur".

It is often said that French music of the baroque era is a little superficial. That does certainly not go for Lalande; there is no superficiality here. One has to agree with his former pupil Collin de Blamont, who wrote: "His great merit ... consisted in wonderful choice of melody, judicious use of harmony and nobility of expression. He understood the value of the words he chose to treat and rendered (in music) the true meaning of the majestic and holy enthusiasm of the Prophets... Profound and learned on the one hand, simple and natural on the other, he applied all his study to touch the soul by richness of expression and vivid pictorialism. The mind is refreshed by the pleasing variety not only from one piece to the next, but within the same piece, ... by the ingenious disparities with which he ornaments his works, by the graceful melodies which serve as contrasting episodes to the most complex choral sections."

Lalande's grands motets are not that well represented on disc. It seems that he receives more attention these times. Last year I reviewed a recording of three motets under the direction of Vincent Dumestre, this time it is Olivier Schneebeli who brings three further motets to our attention. It is to be hoped that more will come in the near future. There is little to complain about the performances. Chantal Santon-Jeffery uses a bit too much vibrato now and then, but she is also responsible for some wonderful moments. Reinoud Van Mechelen and Lisandro Abadie are excellent in their solos. François Joron has a relatively small role; I am not really impressed by his voice, but his performances are alright. The choir and the orchestra are really first class. The Czech ensemble uses here the instruments of Louis XIV's Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, owned by the Centre de Musique baroque de Versailles, and built by Antoine Laulhère and Giovanna Chitto. The recording was made in the venue in which these motets were performed in Lalande's time. Considering that this a live recording, one can only admire the efforts of all performers involved.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Lisandro Abadie
Reinoud Van Mechelen
Chantal Santon-Jeffery
Centre de musique baroque de Versailles
Collegium Marianum

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