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Lully vol2 CVS059
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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Grands Motets Volume 2
Miserere [29:59]
Quare fremuerunt gentes [17:05]
Jubilate Deo [19:06]
Les Épopées/Stéphane Fuget
rec. 6-8 March 2021, La Chapelle Royale de Versailles, France

Unlike my colleague Stuart Sillitoe who reviewed Volume 1 of this series, I was unable to compare these three works with alternate performances from my collection. Indeed, I was unprepared for the effect of the Miserere and for the highly original sound of Stéphane Fuget’s ensemble Les Épopées. That sound is the result of their approach to ornamentation. It is described as “an extravagant profusion of ornaments and very declamatory”, which comes over to the listener as a rougher and more urgent exposition of the score. A few short clips of other performances online make it clear enough what is going on here. Fuget has given his players the freedom to sing and play their individual responses to the music, and strict adherence to tight ensemble takes second place. In the hands of lesser performers this could be a road to disaster, but Les Épopées are very much in the top rank. The result is an intensity that simply grows with every hearing. I have long respected Lully for his operas, and now I also understand better his importance in baroque sacred music.

The Miserere, in twelve sections played almost continuously, lasts about half an hour. The music is serious, as befits one of the most severe and self-denigrating psalms. It focuses on pleading for mercy for one’s iniquity, and must be one of the most downbeat texts in existence. However, the high level of desperate pleading provides Lully with fertile ground for passionate declamation. He takes full advantage in a score that has a granite severity which matches Schütz at his best. It comes as no surprise to read in the excellent liner notes the words of the Marquise de Sévigné from 1672: “I do not believe that there is any other music in heaven.” This performance takes the description “large scale” to its heart, not only with slow tempi but with substantial forces. The booklet lists 36 musicians and nearly 30 singers, and it does sound massive. The effect of the opening is considerable, and in many respects it never really relaxes.

A break to recover is necessary before listening to the other two works. Neither Quare fremuerunt gentes nor Jubilate Deo are lesser pieces, even if both last under 20 minutes. The first, “Why have the gentiles raged”, reflects the angry God of the Old Testament. The second, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, gives plenty of opportunity for loud and lively word setting. Lully again proves to be a master of the required moods. The performers do indeed declaim with all the urgency the texts imply. I admit to being surprised and delighted by what I heard here.

The recording is good, and it conveys considerable detail without resorting to obvious close miking. It is a cause for regret that no one thought to make this a surround recording because the spacious acoustic of La Chapelle Royale is diminished by mere stereo. To hear the echo fade away only in front of one is to be dragged back to the reality of home listening all too suddenly. This is music that demands to envelop the listener, so I resorted to processed surround on my third audition, which did help a bit. There are full parallel translations of the Latin texts in French, German and English, plus long and fascinating essays about the composer and this music, again in French, German and English.

I have placed my order for Volume 1, and will be on the lookout for future releases in the series. I hope also to hear more of Les Épopées in other music of the French baroque. Emphatically recommended.

Dave Billinge

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