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Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726) Les fontaines de Versailles, S. 133 (1683) [46:21] Grande Pièce en G-Ré-Sol, S. 161 (1695) [8:18] Le Concert d’Esculape, S. 134 (1683) [18:00]
Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles/Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs
rec. January/February 2019, Sendesaal, Bremen
French text included with English and German translations CPO 555097-2 [72:55]
De Lalande was the leading court composer during the later years of King Louis XIV. The king was a devout Catholic but he preferred separate pieces to musical settings of the mass, so de Lalande is principally known for the large number of grands motets which he wrote for this purpose, which were performed in the chapel at Versailles. He also wrote stage works and secular music, and his Symphonies pour les soupers du roi are attractive instrumental works.
Here we have two stage entertainments which he devised, both in the same year when he was twenty-five, and which helped to make his reputation. Les fontaines de Versailles, the longer one, was written shortly after the court had moved to Versailles and, among other things, it was designed to demonstrate to the king that de Lalande could set French as well as the liturgical Latin he had previously employed. The piece is based on a simple conceit: the gardens at Versailles had elaborate fountains and also statues of the old Greek and Roman gods. The librettist, Antoine Morel, imagined the statues coming to life and welcoming the king on his arrival at the palace. Of course, as is essential in such a work, the king has to be hailed as the ideal monarch, and this we need to accept as simply the convention and forget about any opinions we might have about Louis’ actions as king.
The music is in eighteen short numbers, very varied in pace and mood. None of them is really slow and there is a good deal imaginative instrumentation. The various gods appear and each has a short scene or two and a range of voices is used. The individual numbers are all delightful and the whole piece is easy to enjoy. There is a very slight touch of melancholy about the writing, nowhere near to being tragic, but making the entertainment refined rather than hearty. This is a highly civilized piece.
Le concert d’Esculape is a much shorter work, in six numbers, written to celebrate the recovery of the Dauphine, the Bavarian princess Maria Anna Victoria, wife of the crown prince. Esculape we know better as Ascelpius, the Greek god of healing and the work honours the doctor Jean-Baptise Moreau who seems to have saved the Dauphine from a miscarriage. This is a similar celebratory work to Les fontaines and equally enjoyable.
Between these two we have one work from the Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roi. This one comes from the fifth suite and was a favourite of the king. The collection was only assembled after de Lalande’s death, hence the late date. This is in six short movements and makes a pleasant interlude between the two main works.
The performances are absolutely superb. The Boston team had staged them in 2016, and three years later took them to Bremen, where they performed them in concert for recording by Radio Bremen, which shares the honours. There is not a weak voice among the singers, and if I particularly pick out Molly Netter as Flore and John Taylor Ward as Encelade, it is simply because they are given more to sing than some of the others. The soloists also help to form the chorus. Although only a few of them are native French speakers they have obviously taken care with their pronunciation. The orchestra has a dozen instrumentalists and the wind players double on recorders as well as oboes and bassoon. Their playing is immensely stylish, light and airy and with nicely sprung rhythms.
The presentation of this disc is exemplary. We have a detailed essay giving the background, full details of all singers and players, and, for the latter, the instruments they use, also biographies and the text of the two vocal works in French, English and German. The disc and the substantial booklet are housed in a separate sleeve, and altogether this is a quality production.