Les Arts Florissants, directed by Paul Agnew
harmonia mundi HAF 8905300
The concentration on Paris as the hub of musical life has tended to obscure the work of French 17th- and 18th-century composers active in the provinces. The disc to hand includes music by two such composers, who if not totally neglected – both major works on the CD have received previous recordings – are not exactly household names. The better known is Sébastian de Brossard, but even he is today probably more famous as an indefatigable collector and historian who published the first French dictionary of music than as a composer. An aristocratic cleric, Brossard spent most of his life at the cathedral at Strasbourg, to where in 1687 he was one of those sent by Louis XIV to restore Catholicism after the re-capture of Alsace. In 1698 he went to Paris, hoping to be appointed maître de musique at Sainte Chapelle, but the post went to Charpentier. Brossard’s final post was at the cathedral in Meaux, where he died in 1730.
It is to Brossard that we owe the survival of the known sacred music of Pierre Bouteiller, who was born around 1655. A shadowy figure, he is first heard of as director of music at Troyes Cathedral in 1687. Following a period in the equivalent post at Châlons-en-Champagne, Bouteiller returned to Troyes, remaining there until 1698, when he moved to Paris. There he established himself as a performer on the viola da gamba ‘and other instruments’. Other than a commissioned Te Deum no record of Bouteiller’s being active as a composer in Paris exists, although he apparently remained in the city until his death, which occurred around 1717.
Brossard recounts a meeting with Bouteiller in Châlons, at which time the latter gave the collector manuscripts of 13 ‘excellent’ petits motets, and a ‘very good Mass for the Dead’ in exchange for Brossard’s recently published first book of motets. Brossard took great care of the manuscript, which he considered to be ‘one of the best I have’, the works included in it remaining all that is extant of Bouteiller’s output of sacred music. The present disc includes the Missa pro defunctis (Requiem), which is scored in five parts with continuo accompaniment. Many hearing it in this wonderful performance will likely consider Brossard’s description to be an exceptional example of masterly understatement. Anyone who regularly reads my reviews will know I’m not prone to hyperbole, but my verdict be that the work is a sublime masterpiece, a largely polyphonic setting in stile antico that throughout demonstrates Bouteiller’s mastery of contrapuntal technique and manipulation of varied textures, including telling touches of affective chromaticism. Especially lovely is the in alternatim setting of the Kyrie, the plainchant set off to great effect by the polyphony. Equally as impressive is Bouteiller’s response to his text, which concentrates on the consolatory and even uplifting, the latter exemplified by the buoyant, confident setting of a verse from Psalm 23 in the Graduel (‘Though I walk’ etc). Yet the overall impression left by this exquisitely lovely work is of heart-easing transcendence.
The major work of Brossard’s here is his Stabat Mater, a large-scale 8-part setting. Divided into 17 sections, it is richly diverse, ranging from grand motet passages like the opening to the chamber-like ‘O quam tristis’ a grief-filled setting of the utmost beauty for solo quartet. The final sections, at first deeply penitential then increasingly ecstatic, culminate in an animated radiance that brings this splendid work to a deeply satisfying peroration. In addition there are two further works by Brossard, a Miserere mei Deus in which two soprano soloists alternate verses with the choir, made especially effective by the recessed placing of the latter, and a 5-part a capella setting of Ave verum corpus, a tiny gem that the brings the disc to an ineffably satisfying close.
As already suggested the performances are outstanding, with beautifully balanced choral singing in the more fully-scored passages and unfailingly sensitive solo work from the seven soloists selected by Paul Agnew from within Les Arts Florissants. This is not only the most deeply affecting CD I’ve heard in some time but also unquestionably one of my records of the year.