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  42:4 (03-04 /2019)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer


During the ancient régime of Louis XIV and XV, composers in Paris were active in providing both the court and church with impressive works that were solemn and festive. Of course, the court favored opera in the fashion of Jean-Baptiste Lully, with its own stable of court musicians beyond Lully’s demise in 1687 being ever more aware of the pomp and circumstance that characterized Versailles. As instrumental music grew in fashion, the Couperins and others exercised their talents in developing works that were both entertaining and pedagogical, publishing them for public consumption. Church music, on the other hand, seems to have taken a back seat. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, for example, lavished his considerable abilities on sacred music, but everyone knew he really wanted to compose for the stage. The church provided him with a day job, but commissions beyond gave him prestige and renown. Given the centrality of the French court, it is not unexpected that composers from outside the capital were drawn there, but had to be satisfied with lesser positions, often in the chapels around town. These posts offered remuneration, allowing them to follow down that often tortuous path toward recognition.

Of these, perhaps the least known is André Raison (c. 1650–1719), who probably hailed from Nanterre, not far from Paris. Although he gained a reputation as a fine organist, perhaps the best in France, he remained satisfied with a post at the Church of St. Genevieve for the bulk of his life. He was known for publishing two books of organ music, one in 1688 and the second in 1714, both dedicated to the Royal Court, but he led a modest if comfortable life. Here, his two Kyrie intonations are presented. Both are brief, succinct, and simple, a reflection on his personal position. Not so Pierre Bouteiller (c. 1655–c. 1717), who was the director of church music at Châlons-sur-Marne. He had come there from Troyes, but a chance meeting with Sébastien de Brossard (1655–1730) apparently led to him attempting to improve his lot by moving to Paris. There he gained a reputation not as a composer, but rather as an instrumentalist, and eventually he obtained a post with Philip V, the Bourbon King of Spain. Returning to France a few years later, he vanishes from history about 1717. His last work was as a private teacher and musician. Little of his music has survived—a bare 13 small motets and a Requiem Mass—and that only because Brossard was able to obtain them during their brief encounter. (There is no doubt that he wrote much other music which has not survived.) These were recorded on Atma Baroque by Les Voix Humaines back in 2005, but here the Requiem serves to fill out the various Brossard pieces in a program from this time. The Mass is quite harmonious and outlines the text with broad sweeps of choral grandeur. For example, the Domine Jesu Christe begins with a simple duet declamation before suddenly expanding out into a gigantic homophonic chorus. The lines are of limited range, but the voicing is spaced to create a large-scale resonance. The Lux aeterna is gentle and flowing, with the same full-bodied ambience, but here with the occasional echo effects. It is a solemn and yet powerful work.

Brossard’s music is better known, though his real claim to fame rests upon his musical dictionary published in 1701. Originally from Caen, he arrived in Paris in 1678 and spent the next two decades or so in or around the city. In 1687, the composer, a priest, was sent by Louis XIV to Strasbourg on a religious mission, and over the next decade he wavered between Paris and Alsace, all the while publishing several collections of works. He failed to obtain a musical post at Sainte-Chapelle in 1698 and was passed over by Charpentier. Instead, he retired to Meaux, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Brossard’s music is typical of the French fashion of the time, generally for solo voices with choral interludes, all held together by a basse continue. The Miserere is strophic, with an intonation by the solo soprano followed by a choral refrain. The larger Stabat Mater, on the other hand, is a more expansive work. The choral portions are large and expressive, while the solo work moves at a sedate pace. For instance, the Cujus animam has a flowing bass, succeeded by a solemn and lyrical quartet, O quam tristis. In a major key, it relies upon suspensions and a kaleidoscopic texture to impart the mood. The Fa cut ardeat is more virtuoso, and here the continuo moves right along in this short exposition. The final fugue at Quando corpus both ornaments the final line and provides a suitably complex finale.

The performance by Les Arts Florissants is excellent. The tempos keep the music lively, and conductor Paul Agnew knows how to use the often sedate phrasing to enliven the lines. The continuo playing is wonderfully supportive, though never intrusive, and the textures are used judiciously to give these works depth and solemnity. In short, this is one disc that is well worth obtaining; it demonstrates the quality and complexity of sacred music of the French Baroque without undue pomp and circumstance.

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