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Guillaume BOUZIGNAC (c1590 - c1640): "Motets"

Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Dir: Matthias Jung

rec: 2006, Bautzen, Michaeliskirche
Tacet - S 156 (© 2007) (61'14")

Alleluya, Deus dixit; Ave Maria; Beati mortui; Clamant clavi; Dum silentium; Ego gaudebo in Domino; Ecce festivitas; Ecce homo; Ex ore infantium; Fuge, dilecte me; Ha! Plange; Hodie cum gaudio; In pace in idipsum; Jubilate Deo; O! Flamma divini amoris; Quaeram quem diligit; Stella refulget; Te Deum; Tota pulchra est; Tu quis es; Unus ex vobis; Vulnerasti cor meum

Guillaume Bouzignac is without any doubt one of the strangest composers of the early 17th century. His music is highly original, and it seems he had no models nor followers. In regard to his highly personal musical language one could compare him with Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, the Italian composer of madrigals. And just like Gesualdo he resisted the modern fashion of writing music in the modern monodic style with basso continuo. Both tried to integrate the modern expressive style into the old polyphonic style of the 16th century. This probably is the main reason Bouzignac didn't have any followers. After his death his music was soon forgotten, and it lasted until the early 20th century before his music was rediscovered. Then it took about 50 years until his oeuvre was performed. Even today his music is very seldom performed and recorded.

The first disc devoted entirely to the works of Bouzignac was released in 1993 by Harmonia mundi. William Christie directed his ensemble Les Arts Florissants in a selection of 16 motets and a setting of the Te Deum. In the programme notes of that disc the features of Bouzignac's style of composing are summed up:
- the use of ritornelli to provide structural unity
- dialogues
- repeated reiteration of text fragments
- a greater use of madrigalisms (word painting) in sacred music than was practice of his contemporaries
- a lack of homogeneity or unity of style - a mosaic quality
This last feature is perhaps most characteristic of Bouzignac's style, but is also most difficult to define. "The 'Bouzignac style' is epitomized by a succession of short phrases, with rapidly shifting textures and voice combinations, as each phrase of text generates its own musical phrase, with no concern for a homogeneity of style, and with frequent attempts to pictorialize the text." It is perhaps also this aspect of Bouzignac's music which has made it difficult to be really appreciated and was probably also responsible for the fact that no composers seem to have followed in Bouzignac's footsteps.

The motets on the recording by Les Arts Florissants and on this new one give abundant evidence of these features. Most of them are immediately revealed in the very first piece of the programme, Dum silentium. The motet tells about the announcement of Jesus's birth to the shepherds. It begins with the words: "while all was wrapped in silence, and the night pursued its course", which is set for the tutti singing unisono. This phrase is sung here (as well as by Les Arts Florissants) piano, which is probably not specifically asked for by Bouzignac, but certainly the right thing to do. What we have here is a good example of word painting. The reiteration of text fragments is also present here: during the first phrase one voice steps out of line by singing "apparuit" (appeared), which is the first word of the next phrase: "apparuit Jesus a regalibus sedibus venit" (Jesus appeared, come from the royal throne). This motet then develops into a dialogue between the angel, sung by a soprano, and the shepherds, represented by the tutti. The dialogue is very vivid and contains a swift interaction, during which the two sides interrupt each other. The motet ends with a very lively phrase of the tutti, split into two, the upper and the lower voices, singing "facta est cum angelo multitudo coelestis" (and there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host) and the song of the angels: "Glory to God in the highest". Alleluya, Deus dixit, is another dialogue, this time between two choirs. One certainly wouldn't expect this text being set in the form of a dialogue, as it tells about God's creation of the world: "Allelujah. God spoke and it was".

The feature of the ritornello is present in Ego gaudebo in Domino (I will be joyful in the Lord), in which the first line is repeated several times throughout the piece. The same happens in the first two of three motets on texts from the Song of Songs, which are rooted in the traditional polyponic style of the 16th century. But they are remarkable in that Vulnerasti cor meum contains some ascending and descending figures including chromaticism and Tota pulchra est is set for four high voices only. Bouzignac has a fine sense for setting contrasting words and phrases within a text. This leads to what is called the 'mosaic' structure of many of his works. A good example is Ecce festivitas amoris, where Bouzignac creates a strong musical contrast between the two halves of the second line: "ergo dies laetitiae et lacrymarum" (therefore a day of joy and tears).

The perhaps most strange piece is Unus ex vobis, which is a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples before his arrest. In the first part the bass, representing Jesus, sings about the betrayal by his disciples, whereas the tutti repeatedly sing "heu!" (alas). The result is a very dramatic account of the last hours of Jesus, and that only within a couple of minutes.

A direct comparison between this new recording and the one by Les Arts Florissants reveals that the latter far better brings the qualities of Bouzignac's music to the fore. Its singing is more colourful and contains much stronger contrasts. In comparison the Sächsisches Vocalensemble is rather bland. Problematic is also the pronunciation of Latin: it isn't French, but also not German. I can't figure out what is the idea behind this. Therefore I recommend this disc only because it contains 10 motets which were not recorded by Les Arts Florissants.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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