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Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676 - 1749): "Motets à trois voix d'hommes et symphonies"

Ensemble Sébastien de Brossard
Dir: Fabien Armengaud

rec: Jan 2016, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue (F), La Courroie
Paraty - 516141 (© 2016) (75'01")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Magnificat à 3 voix et basse continue (C 136); Monstra te esse matrem, antienne à la Sainte Vierge (C 132); Motet à 3 voix tiré du Psaume 76 (Viderunt te aquae Deus) (C 130); Motet pour la canonisation de Saint Pie (Exurge atque iterum renova) (C 150); O piissima, o sanctissima mater, motet de la Sainte Vierge (C 135); Panis angelicus, motet du Saint Sacrement (C 131); Salve Regina, antienne à la Sainte Vierge (C 114); Sub tuum praesidium, antienne à la Sainte Vierge (C 104)

Cyril Auvity, haute-contre; Jean-François Novelli, taille; Alain Buet, basse-taille; Maud Caille, recorder; Valérie Balssa, Lucie Rio-Humbrecht, transverse flute; Guillaume Cuiller, oboe; Léonor de Récondo, François Costa, violin; Mathurin Matharel, basse de violon; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Fabien Armengaud, harpsichord, organ

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was one of the main composers in France in the first half of the 18th century. He contributed to several genres but that is hardly reflected by the recordings of his music. He is best known for his secular cantatas, among them especially Médée and Orphée, and for his keyboard works, comprising two suites for organ and two for harpsichord. Sacred music takes a substantial place in his oeuvre: among his nearly 250 compositions 133 are sacred pieces. He also composed an oratorio, L'histoire de la femme adultère. As far as I know, the latter has never been recorded, and only a small proportion of his motets are available on disc. Therefore the release of the disc under review here is of great importance.

Clérambault was born in 1676 in Paris in a musical family whose members had served the kings of France since the 15th century. His father Dominique was a violinist and a member of the 24 violons du roi. Louis-Nicolas probably received his first music lessons from him. His organ teacher was André Raison, to whom he dedicated his Livre d'orgue. The latter and his motets and other sacred vocal works were probably mostly written for the Maison Royale St-Louis de Saint-Cyr - a village west of Versailles - which opened in 1686 and was designed to educate daughters of impoverished army officers and noblemen. Here Clérambault became organist and maître de musique in March 1715. In this post he succeeded Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, who had died the previous year. The latter was also organist of the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, and Clérambault succeeded him in this position as well. He had been Nivers' assistant in both positions for some years.

It is telling that in the article on Clérambault in New Grove only one line is devoted to his sacred works. "As well as many motets for general use, his sacred music includes some easy motets for use at Saint-Cyr which, despite their calculated simplicity, still bear the marks of Clérambault's expressive imagination." That sums it up pretty well, but this disc offers the opportunity to have a more detailed look at his sacred works. The fact that Clérambault was not connected to the Chapelle Royale explains why his motets are of the petit motet genre rather than that of the grand motet. The latter is scored for solo voices, choir and orchestra, and reflects the splendour of the court and its musical establishment. In comparon the musical forces at Saint-Cyr must have been rather modest. Clérambault's sacred works are for one to three voices and basso continuo, sometimes with additional melody instruments. The range of the parts is different: some motets are for high voices, others for low voices: haute-contre, tenor and bass. The motets on this disc are of the latter type. They consist of different sections, either for the entire ensemble or for one or two voices.

The programme opens with the Motet pour la canonisation de Saint Pie, written to celebrate the canonisation of Pope Pius V (1566-1572), which took place in Rome in May 1712. The text is written by an anonymous poet. The first line says: "Rise up, Lutetia, applaud again. Let worthy spectacles celebrate his glory once again!" Lutetia is the name of the Roman city which preceded Paris. This text is set to rising figures, sung by the haute-contre. One line in the first section returns several times as a kind of refrain: "Chant, sing and be jubilant". At the end the piece returns to this line once again. Pius arranged the formation of the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states to combat the advancement of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe. Although outnumbered, the Holy League famously defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The fourth section refers to this episode: "The impious nation of the Turks already invades Christ's enceinte, but suddenly in a memorable battle the greedy wolves and foxes (...) are repelled by the Shepherd's courage". This episode is set in the stile concitato.

Most of the pieces on this disc are settings of liturgical texts. Panis angelicus is a motet for the Holy Sacrament. It is a short piece for three voices with simphonie. As was common practice in French vocal music for small scorings, such as chamber cantatas, the choice of instrument(s) is left to the interpreters. Here the instrumental part is played on the recorder. Salve Regina is one of the four Marian antiphons. The text is divided into five sections; the first, third and fifth are for three voices. In the second haute-contre and bass explore the text through rising (clamamus) or descending (in hac lacrymarum) figures and through Seufzer (suspiramus, gementes et flentes). The fourth section (Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui) is a solo for tenor.

Monstra te esse matrem is the fourth stanza of the Marian hymn Ave maris stella. Clérambault's setting is for three voices and simphonie. The latter part is played here on the violin. Sub tuum praesidium is the only solo motet included here; it is scored for bass with a melody instrument (here the violin) and basso continuo. It is a fine example of Clérambault's art of text expression. The Magnificat is divided into nine sections. Obviously the most dramatic section is the description of God's treatment of the proud and the mighty, and it is not surprising that Clérambault has scored these verses for bass solo. The second verse is a duet of haute-contre and tenor and is written in a lively rhythm: "My spirit rejoices in God my saviour". The next verse says: "He has looked with favour on his lowly servant", and this is set to a quiet tempo. The heart of the piece seems to be the fifth section: "He has mercy on those who fear him, from generation to generation". It is for three voices, and is by far the longest part of this work.

We return to two pieces with a non-liturgical text. O piissima, o sanctissima mater is a compilation of different texts. Part of it is from the pen of Bernard of Clairvaux, but it also includes elements from the Song of Songs. Like the Salve Regina, it includes the words "gementes et flentes", given here to the haute-contre. Another extra-liturgical piece is the Motet à 3 voix tiré du Psaume 76 (Viderunt te aquae). Psalm 76 was recited during the third Nocturn of Maundy Thursday. Clérambault selected five verses from this long Psalm, and they tell about the passage of the Red Sea as part of the exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt. Here Clérambault shows his sense of drama, as he vividly depicts "the deafening roar" of the waters, the throwing of arrows, the thunder and lightning. This piece has no simphonie, and it is the basso continuo, and especially the basse de violon, which plays a crucial role in the illustration of the dramatic events described in these verses.

These effects come off very well in the performances of the soloists and the instrumental ensemble. The singers are very much aware of the importance of the text, and they effectively bring out the way Clérambault has illustrated it in his music. They have nice voices, and although Auvity and Buet sometimes use a little too muc vibrato, overall I am quite happy with their contributions. Buet has the most dramatic parts to sing, and does so to good effect. In the passages for two and three voices they blend quite well. There is some nice playing from the instrumental ensemble. Most of all I am impressed by Cléraumbault's music. This is a part of his output which is largely unknown, and I find it hard to understand why it is generally ignored. This is music of outstanding quality, and one can only hope that more of it will appear on disc in due course. This disc is a good start.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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