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Larmes de resurrection (Tears of resurrection) Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672) Auferstehungshistorie(Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ) SWV 50 (1623) [46:02] Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630] Israelis Brünlein (The Fountains of Israel) selected madrigals (1623) [30:15]
Georges Abdallah, Byzantine Chant
Claire Lefilliâtre ,soprano; Fiona McGown ,mezzo-soprano; Vincent Lièvre-Picard, tenor; Sébastien Obrecht, tenor; Lisandro Nesis, tenor; Victor Sicard, bass-baritone
La Tempête / Simon-Pierre Bestion
rec. 2017, Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles
Full texts and translations included ALPHA CLASSICS 394 [77:18]
This is the third album Simon-Pierre Bestion has ‘curated’ for Alpha Classics with his flexible and versatile group La Tempête. After giving this striking disc an initial airing, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued to find out a little more about its two predecessors – I don’t think it’s stretching things to say they both rather fell under the radar on this side of the channel. Their first offering La Tempête – Inspired by Shakespeare (ALPHA608) juxtaposes ancient and modern instrumental and choral works (Locke, Frank Martin, Purcell, Pecou et al) in a sequence intended to mirror the spirit of Shakepeare’s play rather than to faithfully recreate its narrative. If this implied a maverick spirit the perception wasn’t exactly allayed by last year’s follow-up Azahar (ALPHA261); the adventurous programming on this disc incorporates two pairs of linked works: the masses of Machaut and Stravinsky are paired with a selection of the ancient Cantigas de Santa Maria interwoven with Maurice Ohana’s contemporary settings of the same texts. After streaming both of these discs I can report that in musical terms at least Bestion’s group offers lithe, energetic performances characterised by precision, style, and real interpretative vision. The programming may raise eyebrows but as progressive independent labels and performing groups seek ever more novel means of communication I feel that La Tempête’s solutions are plausible, enterprising and have certainly proved enjoyable from my listening perspective. Readers will hopefully by now understand the reference to ‘curation’ at the outset of this review.
And so to the current disc – which on an intuitive level at least represents Bestion’s most coherent programming yet. Johann Hermann Schein and Heinrich Schütz were contemporaries and friends (although the latter would outlive the former by more than forty years). According to his brief introduction Bestion’s expressive aim is to re-tell the Resurrection story, using Schütz’s Story of theResurrection as its narrative foundation and interpolating nine of the 26 madrigals from Schein’s exactly contemporaneous (1623) Fountains of Israel cycle “to punctuate the narration and give it points of repose”. With this musician and group however, it’s not quite that straightforward. Reviews of the Azahar disc commented on the archaic, oriental tinged singing in the Machaut. Bestion has previously acknowledged the influence of Marcel Pérès and the Ensemble Organum. I hesitate to use the word exoticism but the spirit of cross-pollination manifests itself on the present disc in the person of the Lebanese singer Georges Abdallah, an exponent of Byzantine liturgical chant who sings the part of the Evangelist. Given that Abdallah had never encountered the German language beforehand his performance is remarkable, to say the least; the ornamentation he applies sounds unexpectedly natural and unforced, the overall effect is earthy and tender, and sometimes both at once. In the note, Bestion justifies this artistic choice by emphasising the influence of Gregorian chant on Western performance practice. I have to say I found Abdallah’s vocal style unexpectedly apt for this project; there is real sensitivity and warmth in his contribution. One hears Schütz’s Evangelist project his message in a novel and refreshing manner.
Furthermore, Bestion has also tinkered with the instrumentation. To start with he re-deploys Schütz’s original viol harmonies, re-arranging them in quasi-improvisational form to better illuminate the spontaneity of the Evangelist’s words – this somehow complements Abdallah’s unique style most agreeably. He then adds brass and further strings (including trombones and contrabass) which may seem at odds with the austerity one usually associates with Schütz’s Story of theResurrection but does make for a vivid and arresting listening experience. At no stage does Bestion utilise this extended palette purely for its own sake. He applies colour judiciously and with the utmost respect for Schütz’s expressive intentions. The normally unaccompanied Schein madrigals also receive an instrumental makeover. In this case the instruments imitate and echo the vocal melodies. This halo of sound similarly intensifies the expressive potential of Schein’s Old Testament texts.
The complete ‘work’ then consists of 21 sections alternating the music of the two composers. The contrasts between them most certainly do not jar; the whole edifice coheres remarkably well. The instrumental textures truly help bring the idea, and the story to life. La Tempête produce a ripe and robust sound, with rasping brass and plucked instruments penetrating the soundscape pleasingly. The voices are impeccably matched.
Purely by coincidence I found myself considering the merits of this issue soon after finishing a review of a superb Linn disc of sonatas and canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries. The extended ensemble Bestion uses here certainly amplifies the extent to which the Italian style spread among German Lutheran composers. While Schütz studied with both Gabrieli and Monteverdi in Italy, Schein supposedly never left his homeland. Prior to a recent performance of this sequence at the Chapelle Royale in Versailles one preview dubbed it “An Italian Passion in German”. I cannot better that description. This recording was also made at Versailles – it seems certain that these surroundings further inspired the performers. The sound is ideal; clear, uncluttered, by turn intimate and monumental. The vivacity of Bestion’s superb ensemble, the warm expressivity of the singing and a palpable sense of informed adventure add up to a fascinating and unusual issue.