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André CAMPRA (1660 - 1744): Messe de Requiem

Louis Morel de Boncourt, Elise Hubera, Augustin Mathieua, Pauline Nachmana, dessus; Robert Getchell, haute-contre; Jean-François Novelli, taille; Marc Labonnette, basse-taille
Les Pages & Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; Orchestre des Musiques Anciennes et à Venir
Dir: Olivier Schneebeli

rec: Oct 9 & 10, 2010 (live), Versailles, Chapelle Royale
K617 - K617224 (© 2011) (60'08")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover & track-list

In convertendo, grand motet; Messe de Requiema

André Campra was one of the most famous composers in France in the first half of the 18th century. His music shows strong influence of the Italian style and early in his career he showed his interest in opera. He began ecclesiastical studies in 1678, and in 1681, when he was at Aix, he was threatened with dismissal for having participated in theatrical performances without authorization. In the 1680s he acted as maître de chapelle in Arles and maître de musique in Toulouse. In 1694 he was given four month's leave in Paris, but did not return to Toulouse.

That year he was appointed maître de musique at Notre Dame cathedral. His Italianate leanings came to the fore when he introduced violins to support the choir. It was almost inevitable that the music theatre exerted an attraction on him. In 1697 L'Europe Galante, his first opéra-ballet, was performed. The clergy's opposition to the stage was the reason Campra tried to hide his involvement in operatic performances. But as his forays into the operatic scene were successful he decided to leave his post at the Notre Dame and to concentrate on opera. He took profit of the climate under the regency of Philippe of Orléans, when there was more openness towards opera and the influence of the Italian style.

In the 1720's Campra returned to composing religious music. He published sacred music, and reworked a number of grands motets which he had written in his capacity as a church musician. The motet In convertendo is one of them, which dates from 1703 and is heard here in the reworked version of 1726. The Messe de Requiem dates from about 1722, and it doesn't surprise that stylistically there are clear similarities between the two works. Both show clear influences from the opera and reflect Campra's interest in the Italian style.

In the Messe de Requiem the light touch dominates. It begins sombre with a motif in the bass, played here at the serpent, followed by the 'Requiem aeternam', but the atmosphere soon clears up on the words "et lux perpetua luceat eis". Even sombre parts of the text have often a kind of lightness which is characteristic of the whole piece. The Kyrie is one of the most sombre parts. In the Gradual the word "non" is repeated a number of times: "The just (...) shall not fear the evil hearing". In the first part of the Offertorio the strings express the text - about the "pains of hell" and "the deep pit" - with repeated notes, and in the tutti section which follows we hear some bold harmonic progressions. The Sanctus is a light-hearted piece in which two trebles appear, probably representing the angels. In the opening of the Agnus Dei Campra offers the alternative of a treble and a tenor - here the version for treble is chosen, whereas the other version is added as an alternative at the end of the programme. Olivier Schneebeli, in his liner-notes, characterises this as a lullaby, just like the following 'Lux aeterna'.

It is interesting to read his observations regarding the differences between the two versions of In convertendo. The orchestral scoring is different: originally written in five parts, following the line-up of the Lullian orchestra, in the reworking the scoring is reduced to four - the quinte de violon has disappeared. The orchestral part is more concise, but at the same time the instruments, in particular the upper strings, get more independence. Whereas in the first version only oboes were added to the strings, the second version has also parts for transverse flutes. The difference in the scoring of the first part of the 7th verse is telling. The text says: "They that go out weeping and sowing their seed". One would expect this to be scored for the tutti or at least more than one singer. Campra did score it for a trio in the first version, but in the second it is allocated to a single voice, the basse-taille. "The individual takes the place of the collective to sing of his distress as a human being, unique, throbbing in his own heart, shedding tears that cannot be mistaken for those of the other humans who surround him". Schneebeli draws a parallel with opera where the protagonists become less "archetypal" and get a more personal profile.

This is a recording of live performances in Versailles. The line up is identical with that in a concert I heard during the Festival Early Music Utrecht that same year. If memory serves me well that performance was slightly better than this one, but that could well be the difference between a disc and actually being present at a concert. Even so, this is a very good performance. The dramatic contrasts are not exaggerated, and the intimate aspects are given perfect readings. Robert Getchell is especially impressive in his solos; the other two soloists are good, except that now and then some vibrato creeps in. The treble parts are divided over two girls and two boys who deliver fine performances. The 'Agnus Dei' from the Messe de Requiem is moving thanks to Augustin Mathieu, whereas Louis Morel de Boncourt sings beautifully in the duet 'Converte, Domine' from In convertendo. Choir and orchestra perform at a high level and greatly contribute to the positive impression this recording makes. As there are few recordings of Campra's Messe de Requiem available this disc is a most welcome addition to the catalogue.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Les Pages & Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles

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