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Charles Hubert Gervais (1671-1744)
Grands Motets Pour La Chapelle de Louis XV
Super Flumina Babylonis (Psalm 137)
Jubilate deo (Psalm 100)
Miserere (Psalm 51)
Marie Perbost (soprano)
Déborah Cachet (soprano)
Nicholas Scott (tenor)
Paco Garcia (baritone)
Benoît Arnould (bass)
Choeur du Concert Spirituel
Les Ombres/Sylvain Sartre, Margaux Blanchard
rec. 2021, La chapelle Royale du château de Versailles, France
Includes booklet with notes and text in French, English, and German
Sung in Latin

One of the things that is being celebrated in 2022 which might have escaped the attention of most of us is that it marks the 300th anniversary of the coronation of King Louis XV, which occurred in Reims on October 25, 1722. The reason I begin my review with this factoid is that it is prominently displayed on the cover of this latest CD from the Château de Versailles label. While I doubt that the anniversary is being celebrated much anywhere else it certainly it has enormous meaning for the palace of Versailles and its marketing department.

The composer Charles Hubert Gervais was born into a Royal household, his father was a valet to Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, the younger brother of Louis XIV. Because Gervais grew up in service at the highest rank, he was given a complete musical education once his talent had been noted. Eventually the Duke would appoint him as his superintendant of music. He would continue in this post for the succeeding Duke who became Regent of France upon the death of Louis XIV. The booklet notes indicate that Gervais preferred to compose operas and ballets. Later in life Louis XV would place him in charge of the music for the royal chapel, hence the recording of these motets, which are all receiving their premiere recordings. I should also note that precise dating of these compositions is not feasible due to gaps in the archives.

The first thing that becomes apparent when listening to this CD is the beautiful clarity of sound that the engineers have achieved in the chapelle Royale. There is warmth and depth to the sound despite the noticeable echo of a large space. The engineers have achieved a good level of detail and excellent separation within the sound space.

Super Flumina Babylonis is a setting of Psalm 131, which is a lament of the enslaved Hebrews in Babylon. The opening is very reminiscent of the opening measures of Giovanni Pergolesi’s more familiar Stabat Mater. Gervais’ scoring of this motet is graceful to say the least, and the musical direction Sylvian Sartre clearly emphasises that aspect of the piece. The tenor is crisp and clear in his delivery of the brief but delectable ‘In Salcibus in medeoejus”. In the “Et qui abduxerunt nos” section, the music benefits from the arching phrases of the two excellent soprano soloists. The bass, Benoît Arnould reveals a finely grained tone which adds a great deal of vocal warmth to his lines. The final music of this motet seems rather too jolly sounding for the gruesome text that closes the psalm. However, this seems to be in keeping with the mood of the piece which seems to veer between emotional highs and lows.

The central tracks of the disc are taken up with the Jubilate deo. It lasts about 13 minutes, making it the shortest work on the disc. This is a setting of the joyous Psalm 100 which begins “Serve the Lord with gladness”. Gervais’ setting of this motet is brimming with a breezy ebullience which Sartre transmits to the assembled forces in a performance that really takes flight. It is certainly the high point on the disc, which only makes the listener regret that it doesn’t last a bit longer.

By far the most extensive work included here is the Miserere, a sombre piece that depicts Psalm 51, which opens with the line “Have mercy on me O God”. Gervais’ music here is not unlike the Super Flumina Babylonis in that it alternates between relatively solemn and light-hearted music. The opening is a beautiful solo for the bass, in which Mr Arnould achives particularly seamless phrasing of the vocal lines. I truly enjoyed the rustic dance-like tune of the “Auditi meo” section, scored for a small string ensemble that would sound at home at any country wedding. The motet gradually builds to an impressive grandeur of the concluding “Ut aedificentur muri Jerusalem”. The last few notes of this reveal the rather pungent sound of the splendid baroque bassoon which momentarily peaks out from orchestral fabric.

Throughout this disc, Sartre leads the impeccably-tuned choir and the skilled period orchestra in readings that leap from the pages of the dusty old scores with new life and a real sense of discovery about the entire project. In one important respect, the recording producers at Château de Versailles have fallen down in their presentation in that they fail to indicate clearly what contribution Margaux Blanchard made to the project. She is listed on the cover as if she is conducting some of the music but the booklet doesn’t indicate anything about her work, other than a rather nice bio of her achievements. I had to go to the promotional videos on You Tube for more information. They make clear that Mr Sartre is responsible for the musical direction and that Ms Blanchard is more of an artistic director for this project. Ultimately they have produced a very welcome disc featuring yet another baroque composer whose compositions deserve some attention. Hopefully some of his operas and ballets will start to appear in the coming years.

Mike Parr

Published: November 30, 2022

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