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Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726)
Majesté - Grands Motets for the Sun King
Deitatis Majestatem [26:44]
Ecce nunc Benedicite [13:39]
Te Deum [24:09]
Emmanuelle de Negri (soprano); Dagmar Šaškova (soprano); Sean Clayton (high tenor); Cyril Auvity (tenor); Andre Morsch (bass); Ensemble Aedes; Le Poème Harmonique; Mathieu Romano; Vincent Dumestre
rec. 2017, Chapelle Royale, Versailles
ALPHA 968 [74:32]

Here is a superb and highly appealing collection of works by Michel-Richard de Lalande, the French contemporary of Biber, Buxtehude, Corelli, Pachelbel, Purcell, M.A. Charpentier and François Couperin. Although perhaps not so universally well known as they are (it was over a dispute concerning an edition of one of de Lalande’s scores that specialist, Lionel Sawkins, sued Hyperion for almost a million pounds a dozen or so years ago) de Lalande’s (whose name is found spelled in a variety of similar ways) music is nevertheless beautiful, intense, varied and full of spirit.

As the royal household of Louis XIV moved to Versailles in 1682, new sous-maîtres for the Chapelle Royale were needed. Over some of the more prominent and obviously more accomplished composers who competed for the positions, The Sun King chose Michel-Richard De Lalande, who had been born barely 26 years earlier (he lived to 1726, by which time he had expanded his roles and influence to include several other musical positions at court). The energy of the singing and the tautness of the playing throughout the generous hour and a quarter on this CD from Alpha would suggest to all but the most stone-hearted why he was so successful.

The CD contains a focused and expertly-performed collection of three of the Baroque composer’s (known) 77 grands motets. These are ecclesiastical works of moderate length, which were written as much to emphasise Louis’ vast wealth and appetite for such music as to glorify God. Several innovations which de Lalande’s predecessors never ventured to advance (perhaps they dared not… Louis was a demanding employer) included new and adventurous instrumental timbres: individual winds (flute, bassoon) were given prominence; indeed, combinations abound which now seem likely to have stopped listeners (and presumably performers before them at first rehearsals) in their tracks.

But the music never stops. It’s never lugubrious, no matter how weighty the texts. These performers understand the need to project to listeners; not indulge a modern conception, particularly when we can’t be totally sure - or even aware - of all of the music’s attributes. They attack each movement with a lift, and enthusiasm, as though presenting the music for the first time.

The music has an idiom which appears deliberately to conceal emotion; passion at times. Listen, for instance, to the fervency of the opening of the Ecce nunc Benedicite [tr.s 9, 10]). Yet in tune with the love of measure and restraint which gilded the latter decades of the Seventeenth Century (in France), nothing verbally or musically was meant to run away or bespeak excess. The Majesty of the CD’s title demanded that control be retained. Yet de Lalande’s temperament responded to the colour, depth and poignancy of the religious import which such texts carried. Why diminish the Deity’s majesty, sanctity or right to adulation. So to admit and succumb to those emotions which are too grand and profound to hide leads to a welcome release.

The Ecce nunc and Deitatis Majestatem date from not long after de Lalande’s unexpected appointment at Versailles. They are performed here in such a way, one has to assume, that Louis will have felt his choice was vindicated (if he paid attention to the opinions of others about such things). The Te Deum, on the other hand, was completed as the composer was reaching 60, having been worked on and revised intermittently for many years. It can be considered the most mature work here presented. It has a sense of ensemble and individuality which - for all their vigour and insight - is to some extent lacking in the earlier works.

The version of the Te Deum used here by Ensemble Aedes and Le Poème Harmonique with soloists has the additional - and rare - bonus of including de Lalande’s marked timings for each verse - thereby indicating to these performers from 350 years later at which tempi the work was likely to have been taken in de Lalande’s day. It’s neither slower nor faster than might be expected - although this recording certainly never lags, stops to ponder; the pace is a good one. The Te, per orbem terrarum [tr.17], for instance, reminds one of the energy and extroversion of some Handelian choruses.

Another benefit of the choice of works for this splendid CD is that the texts are taken one each from the three sources then current: by a (near) contemporary Church Father (the Deitatis Majestatem), a psalm (the Ecce nunc), and from the much older rite in the case of the Te Deum. Over and above this spread of genres, the CD’s three works are varied in themselves - in emotion, musical organisation and even to some extent performance style: the Ecce nunc is reflective, combines the amazing ability which de Lalande had almost to ‘puncture’ darkness with points (shafts at times) of optimism and celebration. But the Deitatis Majestatem consists of one huge sweep of vocal and instrumental energy.

The Te Deum, of course, is pure glorification. And it’s as much a glorification of Louis as it is of God. But de Lalande does not appear as unquestioningly subservient or passive towards the king as at times did Lully, whom he succeeded. This performance has a detachment which emphasises as much the act of offering adulation and adoration to whomever may deserve it in itself, as to finding a (new) way to praise one’s benefactor.

That is not to suggest that soloists in particular are cold or ‘neutral’. Rather, that their first duty is to the music’s splendour, astuteness, originality and (significantly, in de Lalande’s case) the intangible blend of warmth and majesty regardless of the object of such expression. There is a tenderness; yet it’s a tenderness embellished and reinforced by a quiet (but not muted) confidence and optimism in the Te Deum’s Dignare, Miserere, and In Te [tr.s27, 28, 29]. The balance between gentleness and sureness in faith, again.

It must have been a lot harder to perform that way - when the Roi Soleil expected self-glorification - than it is now. One nevertheless feels that these forces under this intelligent direction would have kept their own self-respect and dignity. This is music to be swept up by, while losing touch neither with the fact that its origins are just that: starting points. Nor with the knowledge that in the hands of skilled and sensitive interpreters like these, it becomes consequently flexible music; and so speaks to us in the 21st century just as well.

The acoustic (of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles itself - during two two public concerts… there is no audience noise, though) is warm, rich and yet suitably sombre. It reflects the seriousness of this music. The CD comes with a booklet providing background to the world of late C17th Versailles, de Lalande’s compositions; the full texts in Latin, English and French; and - at the front of the nicely-produced and designed 48-page booklet - pictures and performers’ lists of Ensemble Aedes, Le Poème Harmonique, Dumestre (responsible for the essays) and Romano (their respective directors) and soloists. If de Lalande is little more than a name to you, this CD is a great place to start exploring his vivid and bracing music. If you are already ‘hooked’ you will want to add this to your collection - and by no means just because it appears to be the only CD containing these works which is available. It’s a significant gem.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Brian Wilson


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