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"Rameau's Funeral, Paris 27.IX.1764"

Judith van Wanroij, soprano; Robert Getchell, hautecontre; Juan Sancho, tenor; Lisandro Abadie, bass
Collegium Vocale Gent; Capriccio Stravagante Les 24 Violons
Dir: Skip Sempé

rec: May 2014 (live), Bruges, St Walburgakerk
Paradizo - PA0013 (© 2014) (63'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jean GILLES (1668-1705): Messe des morts (arr. ?François Francoeur (1698-1787) & ?François Rebel (1701-1775)); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Castor et Pollux (Tristes apprêts); Dardanus (grave; rondeau tendre); Zoroastre (Airs des esprits infernaux)

The Missa pro defunctis or Requiem is a fixed part of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Its text or parts of it have been set many times by composers from the renaissance until the end of the 18th century. But France was an exception. It was mostly other texts of a mournful character, for instance from the Book of Psalms (Miserere, De profundis), which were used for funerals. That is one of the reasons why the Messe des morts by Jean Gilles was performed many times since its creation, probably shortly before Gilles' death. The philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier wrote in 1756 that "[today] there is seldom a funeral service with music without a performance of Gilles's mass". Its main counterpart was the Messe des Morts by André Campra.

In contrast to many other composers Gilles didn't come from a musical family; his father was an illiterate labourer. In 1679 he entered the choir school of the Cathedral of St Sauveur at Aix-en-Provence, where he received his education from Guillaume Poitevin, who had also had been the teacher of André Campra. When Poitevin retired as maître de musique in 1693 Gilles succeeded him. In April 1695 he moved to Agde where he acquired the same position. Two years later he moved again, to Toulouse this time, where he was appointed maître de musique of the Cathedral of St Etienne. From his youth Gilles suffered from poor health, and therefore his early death could hardly have come as a surprise. The result is that his oeuvre is rather small, but any piece from it is of a substantial nature, and confirms the qualities which so prominently come to the fore in his Messe des morts.

This Requiem was first performed at his own funeral, in accordance with his own wishes. It was then performed, for instance, at the funerals of André Campra in 1744, Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer in 1756, Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1764 and Louis XV in 1774. Moreover, 15 performances at the Concert Spirituel are documented until the 1770s. The performance at Rameau's funeral is the subject of the present disc. In his liner-notes Skip Sempé expresses his surprise about the fact that Gilles' Requiem was chosen to be performed at this occasion. "It is absolutely astounding that the most 'classic' Requiem of the Grand Siècle, complete with 'symphonies' and solo and choral interventions in late seventeenth-century style, should have served as the funeral music for Rameau, the most gifted and forward-looking composer of eighteenth-century in France [sic]."

However, it was not performed as it was written by Gilles. In fact, almost any performance after the composer's death saw his Requiem being adapted to the circumstances of the occasion and the taste of the time. "The versions of the Messe range from rather subtle 'rearrangements' to the virtual re-composition of entire movements or sections. Each performance represented a new and different interpretation." The various versions also have different tempo indications for individual movements. It seems possible that François Francoeur and François Rebel were responsible for the version performed at Rameau's funeral. They changed the instrumentation: it was originally scored for strings and bc but for this performance parts for oboes, bassoons, horns, double bass and muted timpani were added. Pieces from Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux were recycled and adapted to sacred texts. These concern Que tout gémisse at the end of the Kyrie and Séjour de l'éternelle paix as the Graduel II. Sempé mentions that the alterations are largely confined to the first part of the Requiem. "As the piece moves on, there are fewer alterations of Gilles' original materials. Did Rebel and Francœur simply run out of time?" The Elevation caused particular surprise as it sounds very Italian. That, Sempé says, is quite surprising considering that Castor et Pollux represented the French side of the Querelle des Bouffons. Recent research has revealed that the Elevation is an adaptation of the aria Caro sposo amato oggetto by Domenico Alberti, an Italian composer, harpsichordist and singer who has lent his name to the Alberti bass.

For this recording Sempé made use of the extant manuscript score of the 1764 version and the performance parts. According to a contemporary source music from Dardanus was also performed during the memorial services. That inspired Sempé to include two extracts from that opera and one from Castor et Pollux. Apparently it is not known when music from Dardanus was performed. In this recording the opera extracts are integrated into the Requiem: the adaptation of the Kyrie leads attacca to an instrumental piece (gravement) from Dardanus. The Sanctus is followed by Tristes apprêts from Castor et Pollux and the rondeau tendre from Dardanus follows the Communion. The performance closes with the Air des esprits infernaux from Zoroastre. I find this decision questionable but it is impossible to prove whether it is in accordance with the way the memorial service was structured. Musically speaking I find it unsatisfactory. On the other hand, the adaptations already introduce secular elements in Gilles's Messe des Morts. It results in a kind of dichotomy which I find hard to swallow. I prefer the original any time.

This version is first and foremost a historical curiosity which shows how music was treated at the time. It also gives some idea of the veneration of one of the greatest composers in history whose historical importance can hardly be overrated. Lovers of Rameau's music will certainly want to add this disc to their collection. They get a very fine performance which leaves very little to be desired. The soloists bring impressive performances; Judith van Wanroij is outstanding in the operatic Elévation, even though she uses a little too much vibrato. Choir and orchestra act at the highest level. The latter uses the then common instruments in France.

As a historical and musical document this recording is an unequivocal success.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Lisandro Abadie
Robert Getchell
Juan Sancho
Judith van Wanroij
Collegium Vocale Gent
Capriccio Stravagante

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