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Pierre ROBERT (c1625 - 1699): "Grands Motets"

Dagmar Sasková, soprano; Olivier Césarini, treble; Erwin Aros, Damien Guillon, Robert Getchell, hautecontre; Olivier Fichet, Jean-François Novelli, Pierre Perny, tenor; Alain Buet, Benoît Descamps, baritone; Arnaud Richard, bass
Les Pages & les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; Musica Florea
Dir: Olivier Schneebeli

rec: Oct 17 & 18, 2008 (live), Château de Versailles (Chapelle royale)
K617 - K617215 (© 2008) (68'58")

De profundis; Nisi Dominus; Quare fremuerunt gentes; Te decet hymnus

(Source: Motets pour la chapelle du Roy, 1684)

Searching on the internet I haven't been able to find any recording with music by Pierre Robert. That is rather surprising considering he was one of the most prominent composers in the second half of the 17th century and one of Louis XIV's favourites.

Robert received his first musical education at the choirschool of Notre Dame in Paris. He acted as maître de chapelle at Senlis Cathedral (1648-1650) and in Chartres (1650-1652). In 1653 he returned to Paris, where he took the same position in Notre Dame. In 1663 Louis XIV appointed him as one of the sous-maîtres of the Chapelle royale. In 1672 he, along with Henri du Mont, one of the other sous-maîtres, was appointed as compositeur de la musique de la chapelle et de la chambre du roi. When he resigned in 1683 he was granted a considerable pension which he was able to enjoy until his death.

This was a clear sign of the great appreciation of Louis XIV for Robert. Another was the printing of 24 of his grands motets in a luxurious edition by Christophe Ballard, 'sole printer of music to the king'. This collection contains probably about a third of Robert's total output, a part of which is lost. For his grands motets this publication is the only extant source. It is assumed the motets in the printed collection have been revised by Robert himself, in order to make them more suitable to the extended forces the Chapelle royale had at its disposal at the time of printing.

In his motets Robert fits in with tradition in that the texts are mostly from the Book of Psalms - all four motets on this disc are -, and are scored for double choir: a petit choeur which sings the largest part of the work and from which the soloists are taken, and a 5-part grand choeur which mostly reinforces the petit choeur. The instrumental ensemble is also in five parts, as was common in French music of the 17th century. Between the treble part (the violins) and the bass part which consist of cello, viola da gamba, basse de violon and bassoon with harpsichord or organ, theorbo and serpent, the three inner parts are divided over haute-contre, taille and quinte de violon. In some motets two transverse flutes are added.

The flutes are effectively used to illustrate the last part of verse 2 of Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126/127): "for so he giveth his beloved sleep". It is just one example of text illustration in Robert's motets. In particular his setting of Psalm 2, Quare fremuerunt gentes is full of it. In "Dirumpamus vincula eorum" (Let us break their bands asunder) a sequence of voices entering the proceedings depicts the various rulers revolting against God. And verse 9, "Reges eos in virga ferrea; et tamquam vas figuli confringes eos" (Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel) is also evocatively translated into music. In the first verse of De profundis the word "clamavi" is singled out by adding voices to the solo voice which starts the Psalm.

It is easy to understand that Robert was held in high esteem. The music recorded here is captivating and full of contrasts in expression and scoring. Fortunately the performances do these motets full justice. Not all voices are of the same quality and equally appealing, and in some passages the balance between the various voices is less than ideal. This is probably largely due to the fact that this is a live recording. I also think that some of the soloists do too much, in particular in Quare fremuerunt gentes, trying to add some drama to a piece which is dramatic enough in itself. Strange - and uncalled for in my view - is the crescendo on the closing chord of the last motet. But these are only small criticisms of a production which deserves an unreserved recommendation.

The booklet contains lenghty notes on Robert and the four motets - in French and English - as well as the lyrics. Unfortunately only a French translation of the lyrics is given, but a Bible will provide the appropriate translations in everyone's own language.

Let us hope more of Robert's music is going to be recorded in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles
Musica Florea

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