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"Psaumes de la Réforme" (Psalms of the Reformation)

Choeur La Camerata Baroquea; La Tromboncinab; Daniel Meylan, organc
Dir: Daniel Meylan

rec: May 10 - 12, 2008, Orbe (Switz), Temple
Hortus - 064 (© 2009) (50'24")

anon: Faux-bourdonsbc [not specified]; Loys BOURGEOIS (1510/15-1559): A Toi, mon Dieu (Psalm 25)a [chant]; Vous qui servez le Dieu des cieux (Psalm 113)a [chant]; Thomas CHAMPION (?-after 1579): Jamais ne cesserai (Psalm 34)a [1]; Pierre DAVANTÈS (1525-1561) (attr): Comme un cerf altéré brame (Psalm 42)a [chant]; Paschal DE L'ESTOCART (1539?-1584): A Toi, mon Dieu (Psalm 25)a [2]; Réveille-toi, peuple fidèle (Psalm 33)a [2]; Claude GOUDIMEL (1541/20-1572): Miséricorde au povre vicieux (Psalm 51)a; Oh que c'est chose belle (Psalm 92)a; Clément JANEQUIN (c1485-after 1558): Que Dieu se montre seulement (Psalm 36)ab; Claude LE JEUNE (1528/30-1600): J'aime mon Dieu (Psalm 116)a; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): [Postlude]b [not specified]; Samuel MARESCHAL (1554-1640): Psalm 25c; Psalm 33c; Psalm 42c; Psalm 113c; Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Il faut que de tous mes esprits a 4 (Psalm 138)ab [3]; Or sus, louez Dieu tout le monde a 5 (Psalm 66)ab [3]; Or sus tous humains a 5 (Psalm 47)ab [4]; Psalm 116, 4 variationsc; Seigneur, le Roy s'esjouira a 4 (Psalm 21)a [5]

(Sources: [1] Champion, Premier livre contenant 60 pseaumes de David, 1561; [2] De l'Estocart, 150 pseaumes de David mis en rime françoise ... avec la mélodie huguenote, 1583; Sweelinck, [3] 50 pseaumes de David, mis en musique, 1604; [4] Livre second des pseaumes de David, nouvellement mis en musique, 1613; [5] Livre quatriesme et conclusionnal des pseaumes de David, nouvellement mis en musique, 1621)

[La Tromboncina] Liselotte Emery, Agathe Gautschi, cornett; Daniel Brunner, Florent Pelleteret, Jacques Henry, sackbut

"Here, everyone sings, all sing together, men as well as women, and everyone has a book in hand". Thus wrote a refugee from Antwerp during his stay in Strasbourg in the 16th century. This practice was the direct result of the Reformation which wasn't only a theogical, but also liturgical revolution. It was a clean break with what had been common practice for many centuries.

Despite the differences between the German reformer Martin Luther and his French counterpart Jean Calvin they had two things in common in regard to liturgy. They wanted the whole congregation to sing rather than a selective number of professional musicians. And they wanted the congregation to sing in the vernacular.

In Germany this resulted in a large number of hymns being written and composed by some of the leading poets and composers. Many of them have become widely known, also outside Germany, not only through hymnbooks, but also because composers used them for their compositions, from the 16th century until our time.

The complete Genevan Psalter was published in 1562, and up to 30,000 copies were printed. Contemporary sources affirm that the Psalter was widely popular. Not only among Calvinists in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands but also in Germany the melodies were sung. The German translation by Ambrosius Lobwasser found wide dissemination, and although the Lutheran ecclesiastical authorities resisted the dissemination of the Calvinist Psalmbook, several melodies found their place in the German sacred repertoire. Today the Genevan Psalter is far less known than the German hymns, but a number of the melodies are famous, although they are not recognised as being of 'Genevan' origin. Examples are 'O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross' (Psalm 68), 'Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele' (Psalm 42) and 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein' (The Ten Commandments, one of the chants added to the Psalms).

Through history a number of composers have used the Genevan melodies as the basis of compositions. The most famous of them is Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck who wrote motets about all 150 Psalms with the Genevan melodies as cantus firmus. In his Psalms he is the last representative of the Franco-Flemish school of polyphony. But his settings also contain madrigalisms which are used to illustrate the text. It doesn't suprise that his settings are an important element in the present recording.

Sweelinck also wrote some organ works about the Genevan melodies, and so did the Swiss composer of Flemish origin Samuel Mareschal. In the latter's works the melody is always clearly recognizable and it is quite likely they were used as preludes to the congregational singing of the Psalms. In this recording they are used that way: the organ arrangements are followed by the Psalm sung unisono.

Sweelinck's settings were certainly not meant as preludes: in the Netherlands the organ wasn't used in Sunday services until well into the 17th century. Sweelinck played them mainly on weekdays, during his concerts in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam whose organist he was (at the service of the city, not the church).

In addition this disc brings several settings by French composers who were closely associated with the Psalter, like Claudin Le Jeune, Paschal de l'Estocart and Claude Goudimel who were all active as composers in a variety of genres, like chansons. Also represented is Clément Janequin who never formally converted to Protestantism, but seems to have had a favourable attitude towards it. It is assumed he came into contact with Goudimel while studying in Paris. This probably encouraged him to compose polyphonic settings of Genevan melodies.

The settings of the Genevan Psalms show a wide variety. Within his corpus of Psalm settings Sweelinck treats the melodies in various ways. Among the settings of the French composers some are simple harmonisations (Psalm 51 by Goudimel), whereas others are more elaborate arrangements, like Psalm 25 by Paschal de l'Estocart.

It is a shame so little of this repertoire has been recorded. Only a handful of recordings with music based on melodies from the Genevan Psalter are available. Therefore any recording which sheds light on this repertoire has to be welcomed. Ideally such a recording should convince the listener that this music, and also the Genevan melodies they are based upon, deserve to be better known. But I am afraid this disc is not good enough to do that.

A choir of 16 singers like La Camerata Baroque is not ideally suited to perform the polyphonic settings of Psalm melodies. In particular the settings by Sweelinck are disappointing. These were written for a group of singers in Amsterdam whose names are known, and who performed them at home with one voice per part. But apart from that the tempi are often slowish, and the singing is not very inspired. The singing, and also the playing of the organ pieces by Daniel Meylan tends to be rigid and not very imaginative. Regrettable is also the use of a modern French pronunciation.

The elaborate programme notes are available in English, but the light blue letters on the white background are not very comfortable to read. No translations of the French lyrics are given.

I know these melodies very well: I have grown up with them, and we are singing them every Sunday in church. Therefore I am absolutely convinced they are good material for compositions. I also know there is a wide repertoire of pieces to choose from, in various forms. As the quality of this disc isn't such that I can recommend it without strong reservations, I would like to mention some discs which give a better idea of the repertoire's quality. First of all, the French ensemble Clément Janequin has recorded a disc with Psalms and Songs of the Reformation (Harmonia mundi, 1998). And then, the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp, is recording the complete Psalm settings by Sweelinck. The first volume has appeared on the Dutch market, but at some time in the near future these recordings will be available on the international market as well. The performances are superior, so there is every reason to look forward to them.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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