musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Paschal DE L'ESTOCART (1539? - after 1587): "Deux coeurs aimants"

Ludus Modalis
Dir: Bruno Boterf

rec: Nov 2006, Valloires, Abbaye
Ramée - RAM 0703 (© 2007) (64'47")

Angelus autem; D'un oeuil pleurant; Deux cœurs aimants; Dieu est regnant; Helas mon Dieu; Inter natos; Je ne veux plus bastir; O combien est plaisant; Ode en douze parties; Où est le vray pays; Peccantem me quotidie; Pour mourir bien heureux; Quand je viens à penser; Quelle est ta loy?; Quos anguis dirus; Susanne un jour; Ut tibi mors foelix

(Source: Sacrae Cantiones, 1582)

Catherine Greuillet, Nathalie Marec, soprano; Sophie Toussaint, contralto; Jean-Christophe Clair, alto; Bruno Boterf, Vincent Bouchot, Hugues Primard, tenor; Marc Busnel, Jean-Michel Durang, François Fauché, bass

There are many ensembles which concentrate on the polyphony of the renaissance, but most of them don't pay that much attention to the music written in the second half of the 16th century in France. French ensembles like the Ensemble Clément Janequin mostly concentrate on the genre of the (secular) chanson, but the sacred repertoire is not fully explored, and that is certainly the case with the compositions which have been written under the influence of the Reformation. But that is exactly what the ensemble Ludus Modalis presents here.

Not much is known about Paschal de l'Estocart. It is not unusual that someone's year of birth isn't exactly known, but we even don't know when he died. All music by L'Estocart which has come down to us was printed in 1582, and then he just disappears. There is circumstantial evidence that he was still alive in 1587.

His early years are also shrouded in mist. He was born in Noyon (Picardie) and has lived for a while in Lyon, where he married in 1563. The next sign of life dates from 1581 when he enrolled at Basle University. Here he came into contact with the Huguenot pastor Antoine de La Roche-Candieu, one of the authors of the Octonaires de la vanité du monde, a collection of spiritual huitains, set to music by Claude Le Jeune and La Roche-Chandieu himself. The first and second book of the Octonaires were set to music by L'Estocart as well. (It was recorded in 1982 by the Ensemble Clément Janequin for Harmonia mundi.) There is every reason to believe L'Estocart was at least leaning towards the ideas of the Reformation.

The music on this disc is taken from the collection Sacrae Cantiones, which contains sacred music on both French and Latin texts. The fact that L'Estocart also used Latin texts has given food to the thought that he could have been undecisive in his religious conviction. But composers had to think practically: the inclusion of motets on Latin texts increased the chance of commercial success. And the texts of the motets included here (five of the total of 8) are certainly not in conflict with the ideas of the Reformation.

The French pieces belong to the genre called chanson spirituelle. Originally the chanson was mostly of a secular nature, but in the wake of the Reformation the – often amorous – texts were replaced by sacred texts. After a while a new genre emerged: protestant songs with original texts and music. These were either metrical psalms (like those by Marot and De Bèze) or chansons spirituelles on non-biblical texts. Both genres are part of the Sacrae Cantiones by L'Estocart.

The melody of a metrical psalm is used by L'Estocart in O combien et plaisant, a setting of Psalm 133 (O how pleasant and desirable to see brothers united, amicably). The melody, which appears in the tenor of L'Estocarts setting, is sung unisono first. The title of this disc refers to the chanson spirituelle Deux coeurs aimants which is about love according to biblical principles: "Two hearts, in worthy and holy faith, cherishing the sweet pleasure, fidelity's reward". It gives some idea of the character of these chansons spirituelles, many of which are about sin and redemption.

The longest piece on this disc is the Ode en douze parties, a series of 12 chansons whose complete title says what it is about: "Ode, in which Jesus Christ, the very God and very man, reminds all Christians of the good they receive through him". In all poems Christ is speaking: 6 of the 12 begin with the words "Je suis" (I am). "The anaphoric construction (…) at the start of the strophes is set each time to a rising motif which spans a whole octave, possibly serving to symbolise the metaphysical distance between God and his creation", Anne Coeurdevey writes in the booklet. The 12 chansons span the whole of the Bible, beginning with "The work of the creation of the world", followed by "Jesus Christ came to redeem man", his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven and ending with an "Exhortation to Christians to seek all good in Jesus Christ, and uphold His holy word".

"The musical language of L'Estocart is influenced, as with all the French composers of his generation, by that of Lassus. The whole range of compositional techniques, from imitative counterpoint to homorhythmic chordal writing, are employed to serve the goal of expression, the neatness with which the musical syntax matches that of the text, rhythmic variety and the sense of movement (…), and the wide use of rhetoric figures (…)." A good example of chordal writing and use of rhythm to express the text is in the 9th of the chansons from the Ode en douze parties, on the text "I reduce the enflamed rage of haughty rulers to air, and dash their intrigues".

The ensemble is very profound in its approach of these compositions by L'Estocart. As the chansons were meant to be sung at home, they have opted for a more intimate acoustics than in the motets. As one of the aims of the ensemble was "to allow the richness of the polyphonic writing as much space as possible" they have opted for a performance without instruments. The scoring of the pieces, written for 4 to 7 voices, varies: "solo voices for the chansons spirituelles and at specific moments during the Ode; doubled upper voices for the psalms; and all doubled voices for the large-scale motets". They also chose to perform these pieces at - "historically justified" - low pitch and with the contemporary French and Latin pronunciation.

This approach has certainly paid off. The result is a recording which is just wonderful: it is difficult to decide what to admire most, the music or the performance. It is the combination of the two which makes this disc a winner. The music is first-rate: how well did L'Estocart translate the texts into music and how well he used the compositional tools of his time to express the meaning of those texts. The ensemble is first-rate as well: the intonation is immaculate, the blending of the voices and the balance between the voices in the ensemble is excellent. The rhythmic flexibility, the dynamic shading and the communication of the text are most admirable.

I have very much enjoyed this disc, and I sincerely hope Bruno Boterf and his colleagues are going to record more pieces by L'Estocart.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Ludus Modalis

CD Reviews