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GRAMOPHONE (01/2023)
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Château de Versailles

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Reviewer :
Lindsay Kemp

The two liturgical organ Masses that 21-year-old Couperin published in 1690 as his Pièces d’orgue can be performed or recorded as solo suites, and often are; their elegantly expressive movements – some solemn, some lightly dancing, few lasting much longer than three minutes – are attractive, varied and, on a French organ for which Couperin’s notated registrations are relevant, colourful. Yet they surely better find their feet when presented the way they were intended, which is to say alternating with verses of the Mass sung in plainchant. This is how the Messe pour les couvents (‘Mass for Convents’) appears here, the chant melodies taken from Henri Du Mont’s 1669 Cinq Messes en plein-chant.

This in itself is not new; Marie-Claire Alain, for instance, recorded both Masses this way (Erato, 12/97, 11/99). What makes this recording unique is that it aims to rediscover the lost technique of singing simple improvised counterpoints to the chant in up to four parts, a skill known as chant sur le livre that was practised by French church singers from the Middle Ages through to the end of the 18th century. Jean-Yves Haymoz really is the expert on this, so I cannot comment much on the historical accuracy of what he has obtained from the six brave singers he directs here except that, gently decorating the snippets of chant melody with parallel sixths and tenths, dissonant suspensions and other figural formulae, they conjure a beauty that, along with the way the chant melody pushes the music slightly away from normal tonal route maps, approaches the unearthly. The singing is sometimes cautious – Haymoz admits that two periods of workshopping are not the same as the daily experience the technique’s 17th-century exponents would have had – but the resulting sense of concentration only adds to the general atmosphere of devotion.

The organ here is the 1710 Clicquot instrument inaugurated by Couperin himself at the Royal Chapel at Versailles, and restored after many interventions to its original colours in 1994. Clean as a whistle, perfectly responsive and full of reedy colour and character, it makes Couperin’s music sound as new as the latest version of the iPhone. Olivier Latry performs neatly, firmly and eloquently, at times adding jaunty inégales, at others fully capturing the reflective qualities of movements such as ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ or the wonderfully haloed tierce en taille sound of the ‘Benedictus’.

Fascinating musicology aside, this is a lovely programme to stop thinking about and let flow over you. Perhaps a little incense would not be out of place.




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