musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV"

Céline Scheen, dessus; Lucile Richardot, bas-dessus; Samuel Boden, haute-contre; Marc Mauillon, taille; Christian Immler, basse-taille
Dir: Raphaël Pichon

rec: Nov 3 & 4, 2015 (live), Versailles, Château (Chapelle Royale)
Harmonia mundi - HMD 9909056.57 / (© 2018) (1.41'30")
Liner-notes: E/F; subtitles: L/E/F
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] plainchant: Subvenite sancti Dei; Jean COLIN (?-1694?): De profundis; plainchant; Libera me Domine; André Danican PHILIDOR (Marche pour les Pompes funèbres des cérémonies extraordinaires; Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726): De profundis (S 23); plainchant: Subvenite sancti Dei; Louis CHEIN (1637-1694): Ne recorderis; plainchant: Qui Lazarum resuscitasti; Louis CHEIN: Dirige Domine; Charles D'HELFER (1598-1661): Missa pro defunctis à 4 voix (Pie Jesu); plainchant: In paradisum; Michel-Richard de LALANDE: Simphonies pour les soupers du roi (5e Suite (S 161): La Grande pièce royale ou Caprice que le Roy demandoit sauvent); Dies irae (S 31)

In the baroque era it was inconceivable that public events passed by without the performance of music, often especially written for the occasion. Therefore it cannot come as a surprise that when Louis XIV, the sovereign of France, died, he was laid to rest with much pomp and circumstance, albeit of a more restraint nature than what was performed in his presence during his life. The fact that he was called the Sun King, is reflected in the ceremonies surrounding his funeral.

In the booklet to the present DVD production Thomas Leconte summarizes the event which in total lasted about six weeks. Louis died on 1 September 1715, and the funeral ceremonies started 24 hours later. The king's coffin was laid out in state in the ceremonial chamber of the Grand Appartement of Versailles. Over the next week every day masses and prayers were sung by monks, in the presence of the dignitaries of the royal household. Every day a Requiem Mass was performed by the Musique du Roi; at the end the musicians advanced in procession to bow before the coffin as they sang the responsory Libera me, Domine. On 9 September the coffin was brought to the abbey church of St Denis, where the rulers of France were buried. Before the transport, the Vespers of the Dead and a faux-bourdon setting of Psalm 129 (130), De profundis, were sung. In the abbey church the coffin, surmounted by the regalia, was displayed and guarded day and night for forty days, during which the monks of the abbey prayed continuously for the rest of the king. On the eve of the funeral ceremony the last Vespers of the Dead were sung by the Musique du Roi. The funeral itself took place on 23 October in the choir of the abbey church. The singers and players of the Musique de la Chapelle and the Musique de la Chambre performed a Requiem mass in stile antico, two motets and again a De profundis. After a year it was time for the bout de l'an, which concluded the period of mourning. At this occasion, again in the abbey of Saint-Denis, the funeral ceremony was repeated, albeit slightly abbreviated, and under the direction of the surintendant of the Musique de la Chambre a Dies irae was performed.

Raphaël Pichon put together a programme of music as part of the 2015 commemoration of Louis XIV's death. The performance took place in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles, and marks the various stages of the funeral ceremonies over the entire period summarized above. It is not known exactly which music was performed at the time, except Lalande's De profundis. Therefore this cannot be labelled a kind of (para-)liturgical reconstruction. Even so, it delivers a most interesting impression of how the Sun King was laid to rest.

The programme includes a variety of plainchant, sung to the accompaniment of a serpent, pieces for voices a capella and large-scale items for solo voices, choir and orchestra. For this recording the space of the chapel and its acoustical characteristics were cleverly exploited to make the viewer and listener really experience the occasion. In the list of pieces we find some items by composers who are hardly known, if at all, such as Jean Colin and Louis Chein. The latter was not only a composer, but also a priest and a serpent player. According to New Grove only one of his masses is extant, but apparently there is more, as the two items in this production indicate. Jean Colin was maître de chapelle at Soissons cathedral, where he succeeded Charles d'Helfer. Thomas Leconte states that the Requiem mass in stile antico performed at the occasion was "either the Missa pro defunctis of Eustache Du Caurroy (1549-1606) (...) or more likely the setting by Charles d'Helfer (...)". From the latter's four-part Missa pro defunctis of 1656 the Pie Jesu is taken, apparently as pars pro toto. It would have been nice to hear the complete mass, but that would probably have taken too much time.

Obiously the heart of this performance are the two grands motets by Michel-Richard de Lalande. He was a favourite of Louis XIV, who especially liked his motets, which were frequently performed in the Chapelle Royale. They were also regularly played at the Concert Spirituel between 1725 and 1770. If one listens to the two motets included here, it is easy to understand why they were so popular. Lalande is a master of text expression, through musical figures and an effective use of harmony. Both De profundis and Dies irae include plenty of examples, both in the episodes for solo voice(s) and in the tutti. I am happy to say that these features come off perfectly in the performances. Some of the soloists are not always entirely free of vibrato, but it is not really disturbing; only in some ensembles it results in a less than ideal blending of the voices. However, the main thing is that the expressive features of the solo episodes are fully explored. The Dies irae includes some recitativic passages, in particular in the bass part, which are quite dramatic, and are excellently sung by Christian Immler. Céline Scheen, Lucile Richardson, Samuel Boden and Marc Mauillon also have their moments to shine. The choir and orchestra are outstanding, and the singing of the plainchant is quite impressive.

I seldom review DVD productions here. Most of them are operas, of which I am not a great lover. In other cases a DVD production makes mostly little sense, but here the picture adds something substantial to what can be heard. The Chapelle Royale is a unique place, as it is closely connected to the Sun King. Its space has been effectively explored to make sure that 'Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV' make a lasting impression.

Lastly, something about the technicalities. Sound and picture are of perfect quality. There are subtitles in English and French, and if one wishes so, one can even opt for Latin subtitles - the lyrics of the pieces performed here. It is a bit odd that the numbering of the chapters does not synchronize with that in the booklet. It is nice that the latter includes informative liner-notes, which is not always the case with DVD productions. The DVD itself only includes the music; there is no documentary about the event presented here, and that is a bit of a missed opportunity.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Samuel Boden
Christian Immler
Marc Mauillon

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