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André CAMPRA (1660 - 1744): "Motets pour Notre-Dame de Paris"

Aquilon, Ensemble de voix d'hommes
Dir: Sébastien Mahieuxe

rec: Feb 18 - 21, 2009, Paris, Chapelle Notre-Dame du Bon-Secours
K617 - K617217 (© 2009) (67'55")

Ecce panis angelorum, motet `3 voix et symphonie [2]; Immensus es Domine, motet à 3 voix et 2 dessus de violons [4]; In te Domine spes mea, motet à 3 voix [1]; Quam dilecta, motet à 3 voix [1]; Salvum me fac Deus, motet à 3 voix et symphonie [3]; Tota pulchra es, motet à 2 voix [1]

(Sources: [1] Motets, Livre premier, 1695; [2] Motets, Livre second, 1699; [3] Motets, sans symphonies et avec symphonies, Livre quatrième, 1706; [4] Motets, Cinquième livre, 1720)

Marcio Soares Holanda, Thibault Lenaerts, hautecontre; Matthieu Cabanes, Amine Hadef, tenor; Geoffroy Buffière, Christophe Gautier, baritone; Adrien Mabire, natural trumpet; Gwénaëlle Chouquet, Hélène Decoin, violin; Anne-Garance Fabre-Garrus, viola da gamba, cello; Marie Langlet, theorbo; Yves Castagnet, harpsichord, organ

One of the big issues in France around 1700 was the influence of the Italian style on French composers. Some considered this a threat to the 'pure' French style, others had a much more positive attitude and were in favour of a mixture of the best both traditions had to offer.

Most music with clear Italian influence was written after 1700, but even before some composers were trying to include elements of the Italian style into their compositions. One of them was André Campra, which is not that surprising considering the fact that his father - who also was his first teacher in music - was a surgeon and violinist from Graglia, near Turin. Whether he was Italian I don't know as his Christian names were Jean-François. Although André was born in Aix-en-Provence he must have absorbed the Italian style in his early years. It firmly influenced his own compositions, as he "has shown his skill in blending Italian music so agreeably with that of France. A great many people come every Saturday at half past three to hear the motet sung before the Chapel of the Virgin", according to a contemporary source.

Campra's music was in fact so popular that his motets were even performed in the salons of Paris. The contemporary critic Jean Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville expressed his regret that he wasn't able to hear Campra's motets in the Notre Dame. The scoring allowed this kind of motets to be performed in small venues, with probably not more than about 30 people attending. The pieces recorded here belong to the genre of the petit motet, for a limited number of soloists and basso continuo, sometimes with symphonie, a small instrumental ensemble of two or three melody instruments. In some pieces Campra crossed the border of the genre and made them look like a grand motet, for instance in some tutti sections. And Ecce panis angelorum contains a part for trumpet - not an instrument one was expecting to find in a petit motet.

There is a lot of text expression in these motets, which also results in sometimes striking contrasts between the various sections of a motet, like in the opening piece, Dimensus est Domine. In Tota pulchra es the closing line, "Surge, propera, amica mea" is given special treatment. The same happens in Ecce panis angelorum, whose last section, 'Cantate, psallite', mentions several instruments, like organ, cither and trumpet. These elements are depicted in the music, and here the trumpet gets involved in a dialogue with the solo voice, mostly in the way of imitating the vocal line. The last motet on this disc, Salvum me fac Deus, is one of the most expressive compositions, expressing the deep distress of the poet. The third section, 'Veni, in altudinem maris' (I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me) is set in a very theatrical manner. It is easy to understand that Campra who had been maître de musique of Notre Dame since 1694, left his position in 1700 in order to devote himself to opera.

It is not the first time a disc has been devoted to Campra's petits motets, although his grands motets are receiving more attention. To the best of my knowledge there are just two discs entirely devoted to Campra's petits motets: Canzona, directed by Theresa Caudle (Etcetera) and Ensemble Da Pacem (Arion). William Christie recorded some of these pieces with Les Arts Florissants, in combination with comparable pieces by François Couperin (Virgin Classics). Only Tota pulchra es is included in one of the discs I mentioned (Ensemble Da Pacem). So this disc is a real addition to the catalogue, and the quality of the music is such that more recordings of Campra's petits motets would be very welcome.

Considering the motets are scored for two or three voices, one wonders why the ensemble consists of eight singers. Theresa Caudle uses just three singers; as I don't know the disc by the Ensemble Da Pacem I can't tell how many singers are involved there. Apart from the fact that tutti passages are performed with the whole ensemble - as far as I can tell from hearing, since the number of performers for every single piece is not given - the solo parts are divided among various singers. Immensus es Domine, for instance, is scored for three voices, but the solo passages are sung by five different singers. From the writings of Le Cerf de la Viéville one may gather that in Notre Dame in Paris motets were not performed with one voice per part, as he speaks about "12 choirboys". Whether this also means that the parts in pieces for three voices were cast with more than one voice seems questionable, though.

Another issue of this disc is the recording. In the light of what has been written about the performance of Campra's motets both in church and in private salons one has to decide which practice to follow. Apparently the ensemble decided to take the 'ecclesiastical approach', as this programme was recorded in the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Bon-Secours in Paris, where often recordings are made. This venue has a pretty large reverberation which is noticeable at the end of a piece or section. Probably in order to prevent the reverberation from spoiling the singing and playing the microphones have been pretty close to the ensemble. A listener is well-advised to turn down the volume control, in particular when listening through headphones, as the sound is rather loud. But I am not very happy with this decision. The sound is too direct and rather unnatural and I miss the ambiance one expects in liturgical music.

The ensemble contains very fine voices which blend well, and all singers are doing well in their solo contributions. The instrumentalists act at the same level. Whereas there is certainly not a lack of expression and the performers are very well aware of the content of the music they are performing I think there is too much legato singing, and I had liked more differentiation in articulation and dynamics. A more speechlike interpretation had made this plea for Campra's petits motets more eloquent and convincing.

All things considered this is not the ideal recording of Campra's petits motets, but good enough to enjoy. In addition it has enough merits to point out the quality of these pieces to the sceptical listener.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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