This is a fascinating and charming disc, one assembled with some scholarship. It could easily have been rather dry, as it consists of an organ mass by Gaspard Corrette played in alternation with 17th century chant sung by an all-women group. The intention was to recreate the sound of such a mass at a Royal Abbey in the 17th century. Organ masses were intended to replace every other verse of the plainchant. The singers sing half the chant and the other half is played on the organ alone.
Gaspard Corrette was a well known organist who left a single work, the “Messe du VIIIe ton pour l'orgue à l'usage des dames réligieuses et utile à ceux qui touch l'orgue”. Corrette's mass was published in 1703, thirteen years after Couperin's organ mass.
For the vocal settings, they have chosen to use material by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, organist of Saint-Sulpice. Nivers published a Gradual in 1688 and probably an Antiphonary. The proliferation of women's orders in 17th century France gave rise to such books. Nivers’ chant is an attempt to synthesize contemporary styles with the Gregorian ideal. The Propers used are those for the Feast of Saint Scholastica (the sister of Saint Benedict).
Whilst the Propers are taken from Nivers' Gradual, the Ordinary of the mass comes from a remarkable survival, the music book of Jean-Baptiste Morin, the music master at the Royal Abbey of Chelles. The book consists of a series of plainchant masses including one by Nivers which is used on this disc. The chants evoke something of the sound of unaccompanied Gregorian chant. It is however filtered through a 17th century French sensibility, with all the inflections and ornamentation which this implies.
The setting of the hymn O Salutaris Hostia is taken from a collection published in 1711, supervised by Canon Derey, Maitre de Musique de la Sainte Chapelle de Roi in Dijon, and intended for the Ursuline nuns in Dijon.
The final element in this wondrous jigsaw, is the organ of the church of Saint Michel in Bolbec, which has a significant amount of surviving 17th century pipework and has been restored to a 17th century aesthetic. The organ is played by Regis Allard. He renders Corrette's organ mass with lively vividness, the tone of the organ being wonderfully edgy and pungent.
The vocal ensemble, Ad Limina, is an eight person female group, who sing without conductor. They sing the chants with an easy grace. The vocal lines have a lovely 17th century French inflection, rendered more so by the ornamentation. The singers are sometimes not quite in perfect unison for the ornaments. But they capture the reflective beauty of the music.
Organ masses are a peculiar genre. We only get half of the text sung. Presumably the intention was that the nuns would be able to contemplate the meaning of the missing words as they listened to the organ verses. In fact such is Corrette's talent at catching the mood, that the organ and vocal verses seem to complement each other neatly.
The mass, as recorded here, consists of Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Gradual (Aquae Multae), Prose, Offertory, Sanctus, O Salutaris Hostia, Agnus, Prayer for the King and the final Ite Missa est. The CD booklet includes the texts and translations for most of this. It omits the texts of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. The texts that are included are complete, with the verses played by the organ. There is also a long article which explains how the mass was reconstructed.
I realise that the disc will not be to everyone's taste. But here, with charm, vividness and vitality, the performers take us into a Royal Abbey in 17th century France.