Muffat: Missa in labore requies

Le Banquet Céleste, La Guilde des Mercenaires conducted by Damien Guillon
Versailles Spectacles CVS106

It would be hard to find a better example of the current strength of early music in France than this splendid collaboration between two ensembles based not in a major population centre but in the provinces. One, the vocal ensemble Le Banquet Céleste, is likely to be familiar to anyone who follows the early music scene, but La Guilde de Mercenaires, fundamentally a wind and brass ensemble and like Le Banquet based in Brittany may be a less well-known name. In a note Damien Guillon tells of how their mutual ambition to perform and record Georg Muffat’s monumental 24-part Missa in labore requies (‘rest in our toil’), words taken from the medieval sequence, Veni Sancte spiritus) came to be realised in the superb acoustic of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles.

Muffat’s Mass is one of a number of such works composed for Salzburg Cathedral as part of the Counter-Reformation assault on the senses, the creation of brilliantly theatrical liturgy. Salzburg Cathedral, with its separate galleries, offered an ideal venue (there is a strong temptation to say stage) in which to exploit the polychoral tradition that had developed in Venice in the 16th century. Such works required the disposition of both vocal and instrumental choirs distributed in the various galleries. The most famous of such works is, of course, the so-called Missa Salisburgensis, once attributed to the Italian composer Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672), but now firmly established as the work of Biber.

The Muffat has a strange history, having come down to us in an autograph score in Joseph Haydn’s estate. Even more oddly given its celebratory character no specific occasion is known to have inspired its composition, though Peter Wollny’s note is in little doubt that it was composed for Salzburg. However, the note by Ernst Hintermeier for the earlier harmonia mundi recording directed by Konrad Junghänel, postulates that it may have been composed for the induction of a new archbishop at the court at Passau in 1690, the year Muffat left Salzburg to become Kapellmeister there. The disposition of the Mass calls for two SATB vocal choirs, here with two voices each, plus three instrumental choirs, one of strings and the other two for wind and brass. A small continuo group completes the forces, which throughout are deployed in a dazzling array of combinations ranging from sumptuous passages for the full ensemble to passages of chamber-like finesse and interiority. As so often in large-scale works it is unexpectedly these moments of intimacy that tend to remain longer in the memory than the more overtly spectacular passages, impressive though those are. But the work as a whole seems to me richer in imagination and invention than the works of Biber of this kind with which I’m familiar. There are so many examples that it is difficult to single out individual moments. ’Laudamus te’ from the Gloria may however be one such, an exuberantly florid display of solo voices led by the soprano of Choir I over running bass, the whole creating a kind of perpetuum mobile. Shortly after that the dense fugal tapestry of ‘Qui tollis’ creates a passage of wonderful penitential breadth. Often the passages one expects to be highlighted are especially memorable. The crucial central part of the Credo, for example, is a sublime setting of ‘Et incarnatus est’ for two sopranos, while the ‘Crucifixus’ is a polyphonic solo SATB quartet accompanied by only organ continuo. Here the muffled drumbeats at the mention of Jesus’s death remind us of the essential theatricality of the music. The opening of the Agnus Dei inspires another exquisitely contemplative soprano solo before building to an impressive climax at ‘Dona nobis’. The Credo and Sanctus are punctuated by a Dixit Dominus from Biber’s Vesperae Longiores ac Breviores , the brevity and comparative simplicity the answer to the command for such discipline from freshly installed Salzburg Archbishop Ernst von Thun. Mozart it seems was not the only one to be hampered by such edicts in Salzburg!

The performance of the Muffat is on the highest level throughout both as to the vocal and instrumental contributions. I’ve mentioned the soprano soloists several times during the course of this review and Violaine Le Chenadec (choir I) and Myriam Arbouz (choir II) certainly deserve special mention, but it is to the credit of Damien Guillon that the whole performance deserves the highest possible praise. The same goes for the engineers who have gloriously wrapped the performance in the distinctive acoustic of the Chapelle Royale. It’s a performance I would tend to prefer to the fine but more objective Junghänel.

Brian Robins

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