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Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676 - 1749): "Livre d'orgue / Miserere"

Jean Boyer, organa
Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr/Emmanuel Mandrin, organb

rec: 1993, Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache, Abbaye
Tempéraments - TEM 316044 (R) (© 2014) (68'32")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Miserere mei Deus à 3 voixb; Suite du premier tona; Suite du deuxième tona

Every music lover knows the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice where Antonio Vivaldi was active as a music teacher. This was an institution for orphan girls, although it also admitted girls whose parents were too poor to care for them. Here they received an education, and music was an important part of it. There were various such instritutions in Venice, and also in other countries. One of these was 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 Louis-Nicolas 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.

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. His oeuvre is not very sizeable, but of consistently high quality. He was a major contributor to the genre of the chamber cantata which became popular in the early decades of the 18th century under the influence of the Italian style. Five books of such cantatas were published between 1710 and 1726. Het also wrote a small number of chamber music works, but the largest part of his oeuvre comprises music for liturgical purposes: the book with two suites for organ and motets and other sacred vocal works. It is likely that these were mostly written for Saint-Cyr.

In 1733 he published two volumes of Chants et Motets à l'usage de l'Eglise et Communauté des Dames de la Royale Maison de Saint-Louis à Saint-Cyr. The motets belong to the genre of the petit motet, scored for a small number of solo voices and basso continuo, sometimes with additional treble parts for violins or other instruments. In this collection the motets are scored for three solo voices - two sopranos and mezzo-soprano - and basso continuo. The choir is a petit choeur, more or less comparable with the ripienists in German sacred music. As these collections were designed exclusively for the girls of Saint-Cyr they omit the basso continuo part. However, the library of the Versailles palace includes a manuscript and from this and some other sources the missing bass part can be taken. This allows the performance of the Miserere on this disc. It is a part of Clérambault's oeuvre which is hardly explored as yet which is surprising if the quality of this piece is an indication of the quality of his entire output in this genre. The opening is telling: the very first word, "miserere", is set to a strong dissonant. The whole setting of this penitential psalm reveals Clérambault's responsiveness to the text.

The two organ suites are much better known, and are part of the standard repertoire of French organ music under the Ancien Régime. These are often performed independently - and that is certainly a legitimate option - but are in fact intended for the alternatim practice. That is how they are performed here. The liner-notes state: "The book was conceived to alternate either with pieces of the Ordinary of the Mass or with the Magnificat." For the first suite the latter has been chosen. However, there is a slight problem in that the number of organ verses exceeds the number needed for the Magnificat: seven instead of six. This problem has been solved by playing the surplus movement - the fugue between plein jeu and duo - at the end as an instrumental reprise of the opening antiphon. For the second suite another canticle was selected, the slightly longer Benedictus which fits Clérambault's suite perfectly.

Obviously Clérambault wanted his organ book to sell well. To that end he added a postscript in which he stated that he had composed his suites in such a way that they could be played on a large organ but also on a cabinet organ with divided manuals. The latter means that the descant and the bass can be registered differently, a feature of many Spanish and Italian organs with only one manual. He also suggested that if there were notes in the left hand which were too low they could be played an octave higher. It is not quite clear whether here two different organs are used. The booklet says that in the first suite the canticles are sung at the gallery with the large organ whereas in the second suite the vocal verses are performed with the "orgue positif Westenfelder". The latter restored the large organ in the 1990s. However, the booklet includes a specification of that organ, built by Jean Boizard in 1714, but has no information about a positive organ by Westerfelder. On the internet I could not find any information about the presence of a smaller organ in the abbey. Maybe the term "orgue positif" refers to the positif of the large organ.

This disc is a compilation of two recordings with music by Clérambault and seems to have been reissued to commemorate the death of the organist Jean Boyer in 2004. This probably explains that the liner-notes only give information about the two organ suites but nothing about the Miserere. It is also not mentioned that the basso continuo is not played by Boyer but by the ensemble's director, Emmanuel Mandrin. The production should have been more careful in this respect.

But the main thing is that the performances are of superior quality. Jean Boyer was a brilliant organist whose performances are not well represented on disc. He played a major role in the promotion and the interpretation of French classical organ music. This disc is a most welcome monument of his art. The Miserere is a fine work which is given an excellent interpretation by Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr. I strongly recommend this disc and urge anyone who likes this kind of music to search for the original recordings by this ensemble which were first released by the deceased label Fnac.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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