Seeing the names “Philippe Herreweghe” and “La Chapelle Royale” always gets me excited. I am an avid follower of both conductor and ensemble, and every single recording I have heard from them has been absolutely sublime. So, before I’d even opened the CD sleeve - which is the customarily beautiful “HM Gold” - I had very high expectations.
André Campra is not as well known as his compatriots of the baroque period who include figures as illustrious as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Grabu, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. This is a shame, as his music has often gone without proper appreciation. The programme notes are most wonderfully informative; highlighting that Campra was both a distinguished operatic composer and a prolific composer of church music. This is certainly evident in his Requiem, which is solemn, sincere and unassuming, and has a musical purity reminiscent of Dumont and Charpentier - especially in his use of male voice trio sections.
The opening “Introitus” is beautiful. Calming, yet blessed with perpetual motion, the music is wonderfully executed with consummate ease, any and all ornaments tastefully employed ... and that’s before the choir even comes in. The voices are exactly what I would expect from La Chapelle: of the highest quality, and a musicianship so refined that it is difficult to find a comparable standard. The solo at “te decet hymnus” and the following male voice trio are breathtaking. Even the faster sections of the “Introitus” are underpinned by a stateliness that is clear to all who listen. All of these elements combine with a harmonically simple score to provide a committed performance filled with a sense of direction and purpose.
The “Kyrie” begins to showcase nicely Campra’s operatic skills. The opening soloist crying “kyrie eleison” (‘Lord have mercy’ in Greek) is given its own character - the lone voice crying out in the wilderness. This is not only dramatically powerful, but also beautifully employed. Looking over my listening notes for the “Kyrie,” I have written ‘soaring soprano lines – YES.
’ Evidently I was enjoying the soprano singing very much at this point.
The opening of the “Graduel” was a further showcase of Campra’s theatrical leanings. It felt like theatrical incidental music, and when the voice enters, it feels like a scene with aria and chorus sections. This theatrical element is something that permeates the whole piece. It is made very clear in the programme notes that ceremonial funerals - for which these Requiem masses were composed - were dramatic occasions: perfect for Campra to show off a little. He does, but in a dignified and pious way.
The “Offertoire” is remarkably rich in tone, the male voice trio wonderfully intense and the musicianship highly sensitive. There’s a superb balance of sonority across the entire ensemble. A stark change of mood is encountered in this movement, especially as the choir approach the dramatic phrase “ne absorbeat eas Tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum” (‘lest the bowels of Hell engulf them, lest they fall into darkness”). At this point the music becomes very dramatic, dark, and almost frantic. This is contrasted beautifully by the following text “sed signifer sanctus Michael representet eas” (‘but let Michael, thy sacred standard-bearer’), which is light and flowing. Again, the performance is committed, and this contrast is brought out with a level of skill that is nothing short of masterful.
The “Sanctus” brings us into a lighter, daintier mood, and the heavy featuring of the upper voices in trio and antiphonal to the choir was a delight to my ear. Again, the bass soloist (Stephen Varcoe) was on stunning form. I found the “Hosanna” section to be of particular note here. In most mass settings, the choir piles in in its entirety as they sing “Hosanna in excelsis” (‘Hosanna in the highest’). However, here, the soloist and upper voice trio introduce the text before the chorus proper sings it. This I found to be a very nice feature indeed.
The “Agnus Dei” movement was contemplative, and the opening solo from Varcoe was just sublime, perfectly setting the tone for the movement. The antiphonal singing between the soloist and choir was also spectacularly balanced – no mean feat when trying to balance a soloist against an entire choir. This was just another example of the sheer height of musicianship on display.
The “Post-Communion” was another change in mood. Campra presents to us a dainty opening in triple meter, to which the musicians bring a vibrant and sprightly life. Following the opening solo, the choir enters in a peaceful, hopeful and intense account of the text. The music reflects an everlasting peace, and the hope of eternal life by trusting in God. The lively triple meter then returns briefly, followed by a nimble duple meter. The choir and orchestra deal with the quick changes in tempo with absolute ease.
Not only is this convincing and engaging throughout; it is also dominated by an attention to detail that is most impressive. The ensemble have chosen the route of historically informed performance, but have gone a step further than the standard baroque pitch (i.e. A=415hz, as opposed to modern concert pitch of A=440hz). They have gone for a truly French style by performing at A=392. Not only is this fashionable in terms of the French baroque, but the lower pitch adds to the gravity of the piece. The effect is accentuated by the top tenor lines following a true haute-contre
This is historically informed performance at its very highest standard, and it is an absolute must-have for any French baroque enthusiast. The performance is highly convincing and emotionally engaging, transmitting Campra’s dignified sense of piety in a most accomplished manner.
Not only did this disc live up to my expectations, it may safely be said that such expectations were exceeded. I definitely want to listen to more of Campra’s music in the future.