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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Dies Irae (1683) [19:48]
Te Deum (1677) [39:36]
Allabastrina Choir and Consort/Elena Sartori
Booklet notes in English and Italian; no sung texts
rec. 2016, Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully is best known for more or less single-handedly developing the distinctive form of Baroque French opera at the court of Versailles. Less prominent, though no less special, is the body of sacred music that he also wrote for its chapel, and this disc features two of the grands motets, starkly juxtaposing the funereal Dies Irae alongside the celebratory Te Deum.

In her liner notes – which omit any discussion of the works’ origins or analysis – Elena Sartori describes in the most general terms the idioms of French musical style, but dismisses much similarity between Lully’s sacred works and his French operas or indeed ‘other sacred works in Latin by coeval composers’, without offering any further justification. Notwithstanding a few exceptions noted further on in this review, it is not clear that, in general, these works differ so very much from the style of other such compositions by the likes of Campra and Charpentier – the latter’s own slightly later Te Deum constituting probably the most famous choral work of the French Baroque.

Be that as it may, these performances certainly do not play up very much the overt French influences as the singers and instrumentalists utilise comparatively little ornamentation, and there is only sporadic, inconsistent use of characteristic notes inégales or dotted rhythms; the solo tenor’s Preces meae non sunt dignae in the Dies Irae is a notable exception to the latter. Pronunciation of the Latin text throughout is in standard form rather than Gallicised as is encountered with increasing frequency in such repertoire.

In essence, Sartori’s interpretations are marked by restraint and decorum, especially in the Dies Irae, as appropriate, and the uncredited vocal soloists do not make any particular points with their interludes between the fuller, choral sections. As a quartet together they sound ideally gaunt and drained in tone for Ingemisco, tamquam reus, and elsewhere are dependable and sympathetic to the music’s idiom, the tenor sounding somewhat like Charles Daniels.

That basic approach, matched by the Allabastrina Consort, affords a background for the forces to make more expressive gestures as necessary, such as the bass’s more theatrical solo on Rex tremendæ majestatis, and a radiant choral Amen to conclude the Dies Irae, where the sopranos of the Allabastrina Choir soar aloft. Likewise in the Te Deum there is somewhat more embellishment in the opening Simphonie – scored with trumpet and timpani, and cast in a recurring rondo structure, exactly like the Prelude of Charpentier’s celebrated setting – and in the choir’s refulgent and crisp entries that follow, with their animated sequences of block chords, especially in Tibi omnes Angeli. Listeners will also be struck by the handful of passages of more obviously Italianate writing by Lully in the Dies Irae’s Lacrimosa where the harmonic rhythm slows down, and the thematic material is marked by mournful upward leaps of a minor sixth and dissonant suspensions among the vocal parts that look ahead to Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus settings for example. Te ergo quaesumus makes a similar effect in the Te Deum despite remaining in the major key, though the Miserere nostri after that makes use of the same ascending motif of a sixth, to the same heart-rending effect in these sensitive performances.

These are generally fine, uncontroversial recordings that will please devotees of Baroque music. Collectors will find a more typically French character in the Dies Irae under Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi, although its more mannered (or perhaps Mannerist) ebb and flow between sections may not be all tastes. The likes of Hervé Niquet and William Christie do the same in the Te Deum, never mind the more old-fashioned, big band recording by Jean-François Paillard, which all summon greater exuberance in this music. Sartori’s great strength, however, is to maintain an impressive momentum across the continuous structure of both works without breaking them up into discrete episodes. That pays dividends in the cumulative tension wrought in the Te Deum in particular, up to the urgent duet between tenor and bass at Fiat misericordia tua near the end, finally breaking out into the climax of the concluding chorus. It is a pity that the insert notes are neither more extensive nor include texts, as this is an otherwise attractive release.

Curtis Rogers



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