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Jean-Noël HAMAL (1709 - 1778): "Motets"

Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicolas Achten

rec: Feb 18 - 21, 2020, Schaerbeek (B), Studio Dada
Musique en Wallonie - MEW 2098 (© 2021) (68'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Astra coeli; Ecce panis angelorum; Ite O pompae fallaces; Obstupescite gentes

Wei-Lian Huang, soprano; Andrea Gavagnin, alto; Francisco Mañalich, tenor; Nicolas Achten, baritone
Benoît Laurent, Christopher Palameta, oboe; Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, Simon Poirier, horn; Jasmine Eudeline, Ann Cnop, Mivhiyo Kondo, Izana Soria, Ortwin Lowyck, Anaëlle Blanc-Verdin, Shiho Ono, Rafael Nuñez Velazquez, violin; Benoît Douchy, Jorlen Vega García, Louise Moreau, viola; Ronan Kernoa, Mathilde Wolfs, Valentine Bajou, basse de violon; Benoît Vanden Bemden, double bass; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Mathieu Valfré, organ

In recent years I have reviewed several discs with music by composers who worked in present-day Belgium during the 18th century. All of them are relatively little-known, certainly outside of Belgium. It is rather surprising that even Belgian ensembles and performers, who have played such a major role in the revival of early music and historical performance practice, hardly have given attention to their own musical heritage. On the basis of what I have heard in recent recordings, this negligence is unjustified, and it is satisfying that several ensembles are willing to explore the music by composers as the members of the Fiocco family, Pieter Van Maldere, Henri-Jacques De Croes and Pierre-Hercule Bréhy, to name just a few.

Jean-Noël Hamal was born in Liège, where he worked nearly all his life; his father, Henri-Guillaume, served the cathedral of St Lambert. There Jean-Noël became a chorister at the age of seven. He came into contact with Italian music at an early age, and from 1728 to 1731 he was in Italy to further his musical education with Giuseppe Amadori of Liège College in Rome. There he was ordained priest. Apparently he had already started to compose; according to his nephew Henri some of his compositions were performed in Roman churches. In 1738 Hamal was appointed director of Liège Cathedral. He held this position until the end of his life, but not without problems. There was quite some complaining about Hamal's negligence of his duties, for instance with regard to teaching the choirboys. It seems that Hamal's main interest was composing and performing. In 1738, when he took office in the Cathedral, he also started, together with his father, concerts spirituels in the town hall. In 1750 he visited Italy once again, and came into contact with Francesco Durante and Niccolò Jommelli.

Hamal has left a sizeable oeuvre, which includes four operas, three oratorios, a large number of masses and requiems, several settings of the Te Deum, grands motets and petits motets, Lamentations, litanies and psalms, as well as instrumental music. It is quite remarkable that nearly his entire oeuvre has been preserved in the library of the Liège Conservatoire. Hamal was a composer on the brink of the galant idiom and the early classical style, and his oeuvre shows the influence of his Italian contemporaries. For the present recording Nicolas Achten selected four motets in the grand motet genre: pieces for solo voices, choir and orchestra. However, they are different from the traditional French grand motet of the baroque era, in that they are not settings of psalms, but rather free texts; Ecce panis angelorum is the setting of a text by Thomas Aquinas. It is about the Holy Sacrament, and so is Obstupescite gentes, as the duet of alto and tenor expresses: "While in the sacrament of the most ardent divine love, may the oblation of the redeeming host be raised from the altar up to heaven". Ite, O pompe fallaces seems not to be connected to a liturgical event; it has rather a moralistic character, and is about the vanity of everyday life. The motet ends with a chorus: "Therefore, vanities of this world, away with you!"

The motet which opens the programme is something different. Astra coeli is by far the longest work, and includes several virtuosic arias of an operatic character. The instrumental scoring is also larger than that of the other motets, including pairs of oboes and horns. There is some doubt about this work's authenticity. It has been preserved in autograph, but the lack of a closing chorus has raised questions, as this is uncharacteristic for Hamal. Moreover, the opening chorus also appears in a manuscript attributed to Giovanni Paisiello, which would then be the latter's earliest work. The horn parts are replaced by trumpet parts, and this has led to the assumption that Hamal is the original composer and Paisiello adapted it. However, it is impossible to be sure who was the original composer.

This motet differs stylistically from the other three, and whether or not it is entirely Hamal's work, it contributes to our knowledge of Hamal's stylistic development. The arias in this motet, all in dacapo form, show a strong influence of contemporary opera. The other three motets are much more modest in proportions and in technical requirements. The arias are shorter, there are some duets, and in general they have a more liturgical character than Astra coeli, which may well be intended for performance at the concerts spirituels.

Achten decided to perform these motets with one voice per part. That is not based on historical evidence - there may be none - but rather the vocal writing. In the case of the three short motets I find this musically convincing, but I wonder whether a choir would not have been a better option in Astra coeli, especially as the orchestra is rather powerful, with eight violins, three violas, three bass violins and double bass, as well as pairs of oboes and horns. In particular in the opening chorus the orchestra almost overpowers the voices.

This disc is an impressive testimony of Hamal's art. He is one of those composers whose oeuvre needs to be thoroughly explored. There is enough to choose from. Scherzi Musicali seems the right ensemble to do that. I am not only impressed by Hamal's music, but also by the way it is performed here. The four singers deliver outstanding performances. The way Wei-Lian Huang, Andrea Gavagnin and Francisco Mañalich deal with their arias in Astra coeli is really remarkable. I have not always very much appreciated Nicolas Achten's singing, but here he is really doing well. The orchestra is excellent too. This is the way to put a relatively little-known composer on the map.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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