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Les Maîtres du Motet
André RAISON (c. 1640-1719)
Messe du Premier Ton: Kyrie [1:28]
Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730)
Miserere mei Deus, SdB. 53 [13:15]
Messe du Miserere mei Deus Deuxième Ton: Kyrie [1:31]
Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730)
Stabat Mater, SdB. 008 [17:45]
Pierre BOUTEILLER (c. 1655-c. 1717)
Missa pro Defunctis, IPB 1 [30:16]
Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730)
Ave verum corpus, SdB. 010 [2:32]
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
rec. 2016, Abbaye de Lessay, Manche, Normandy, France
HARMONIA MUNDI HAF8905300 [67:05]

The name Sébastien de Brossard may feature only in the collections of devotees of French baroque music, but he is an important figure in the history and development of French music, and, in fact, music in general. He was an avid collector of manuscripts and it is only through his collections that some pieces, including those by French, Italian and German composers, are known. Brossard was born in Dompierre in north-eastern France and went on to study music only after first completing his studies in philosophy and theology; this led him to the life of a priest. Indeed, it was Louis XIV who chose Brossard for the job of reinstating Catholicism in Alsace after he had won it back from the Germans. He was also a lexicographer, theorist and bibliophile, writing a dictionary of music and highly appreciated theoretical works, including a treaty on the difference between the major and minor scales.

Brossard’s music could be seen as being a hybrid of the Italianate works prevalent in Paris and the French liturgical tradition. The opening work on this disc, his Miserere mei Deus, was composed during his time at Strasburg in 1689 and comes down to us in various forms, my other two versions being for voice and ensemble (E 8607), and voices and bass continuo (207582), whereas here Paul Agnew calls for a simple organ and a sparse viole da gamba accompaniment. This makes for a more intimate and spiritual performance, one in which the beauty of the text and of the quality of the singing shine through. This is followed by his Stabat Mater; again, I have another recording that employs an ensemble (E 8619), while Agnew again chooses to use the organ alone. This is explained in the notes, where Agnew states that they sought a performance more in keeping with the liturgical context of the pieces rather than a concert performance; this is further heightened by the use of a soloist to sing the plainchant intonations in the Miserere mei Deus and the Bouteiller, which was common practice at the time of composition. The final Brossard piece on the disc is the short Ave verum corpus, which again comes in the form of a liturgical setting that would have been common practice in the cathedral in Strasburg. These performances are quite different from my other recordings but work really well and are probably closer to how Brossard would have heard them.

The name of Pierre Bouteiller is known to me only through reading around the subject. He was the chapel master at Troyes and composed music in this context. It is thought that on one trip between Paris and Strasburg, Brossard, owing to his high-ranking position in the Church, prevailed on the clerics of Troyes for an overnight stay when he met Bouteiller, although the notes reproduce an interesting fiction by Érik Orsenna regarding the two men’s meeting. Either way, it is as well that they did meet, as it seems that Bouteiller gave Brossard manuscripts to his Missa pro Defunctis, or Requiem along with some of his motets, and these are now the only extant pieces by Bouteiller, which is somewhat depressing. Brossard regarded the Missa pro Defunctis as one of the greatest treasures in his library of musical pieces and you can see why. It is more French in character with fewer Italianate qualities, and is given a performance that would match the solemnity of the occasion of a funeral: it is a strongly spiritual setting of the Requiem, heightened by the use of plainchant.

The disc opens with a setting of the Kyrie by the French organist composer André Raison, a name new to me despite his reputation as one of the greatest French organists of his day and an important player in the development of French organ music, he is therefore someone I need to investigate further. The two very short pieces are quite atmospheric and meditative pieces that bracket Brossard’s setting of the Miserere mei Deus very well indeed.

The performances are excellent throughout, and the authentic style allows the glory of the vocal line to win through. This is exploited to maximum effect by Paul Agnew, himself a great singer of the French baroque repertoire, and Les Arts Florissants; their performance has great simplicity and style, but also great tenderness. I listened again to my other recordings of the Brossard and this has quickly become my favourite; the emotional integrity of the singing makes it stand alone, and the performance of the Bouteiller serves only to reinforce this. Florian Carré’s organ playing is incisive and not just in the Raison, as he gives just enough support to the vocalists. The recorded sound is wonderfully ethereal, capturing the acoustic of the Abbaye de Lessay well and giving the performance a sense of occasion. The booklet, with its discussion of the composers, their works and the performing practices prevalent at the time of composition, adds to our understanding and enjoyment of this music.

Stuart Sillitoe

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