Rameau: Grands Motets

Rameau: Grands Motets
Les Arts Florissants - William Christie
Erato 4509-96967-2 [CD]


  1. In Convertendo
  2. Quam Dilecta
  3. Deus Noster Refugium


Les Arts Florissants, William Christie dir.
Noémi Rime (s), Sophie Daneman (s), Paul Agnew (ht), Nicolas Rivencq (t), Nicolas Cavallier (b)

Playing time: 70'

Recording date: June 1994


This review was posted to r.m.c. in March 1995.

I'd like to say a few words about this recording, beginning with "fabulous." This is (one of) the first recording(s) by the French conductor William Christie on the label Erato. I don't think he recorded those motets before, but Herreweghe did in 1982 for Harmonia Mundi (901078). That is a recording I have owned for a while now, and always dearly loved. I have thus hesitated to buy the new one, as I don't like duplication.

The Christie recording has three motets out of 4 known motets by Rameau. The 4th is really a 2 1/2 minute movement published in his treatise on harmony; Herreweghe recorded it, but not Deus Noster Refugium, so you actually get quite a bit more on the new recording. You also get substantial liner notes and the full text, missing in the HM recording.

Christie's tuning is noticeably lower than Herreweghe's, pronunciation of Latin is French rather than Italian in Herreweghe, and I like the sound recording better in Christie: much less reverberation, better balance and easy differentiation of the various voices. The pronunciation makes quite a bit of difference to my ears: the sound is more round and plump in the Italian version, whereas the French "u" accentuate the fineness of the line, especially in the solos.

The soloists are part of the new crop of Arts Florissants singers, mostly fairly new faces for me (and good-looking ones too...). The haute-contre is Paul Agnew, versus Henri Ledroit in Herreweghe, and the 13 years make a big difference in terms of technique and ornementation. Agnew's opening solo In Convertendo is finely chiseled, every angle softened or sharpened for our delight, vibrato beautifully used to increase the tension at the end of long held notes, etc. The others are Sophie Daneman, Noémi Rime, Nicolas Rivencq (those two familiar names) and Nicolas Cavalier.

These motets contain gorgeous music: they are to some degree concert music as much as religious music, and indeed the version of In Convertendo that has survived is the revised one for the Concert Spirituel. Lengthy orchestral parts, ravishing solos accompanied by flutes, occasional interludes with oboes and bassoons, make a lot of the music lyrical, if not elegiac. And then, for Stephen Wilcox who wanted more counterpoint amidst all that dance music, there is quite a bit of fugal writing for chorus, including a splendid fugue at the end of In Convertendo, to illustrate the contrary movement of the verse in psalm 126: "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves [with him]." Rococo religiosity, something of an oxymoron it would seem, but that's what Rameau achieves, like Tiepolo in some way.

Yet, I must confess that I remain attached to the old Herreweghe recording. There is at times an controlled intensity of emotion that I can't always find in the Christie recording. Or maybe it's just sentimental attachment to that recording, one of the handful I brought with me to the US 8 years ago....

Ah yes, minor gripe, but Erato put a picture of Christie on the cover. Not a bad picture at all, but I regret the Harmonia Mundi practice of choosing a suitable Old Master for the cover. Herreweghe's cover was El Greco, some angels watching on the coronation of the Virgin, which I thought was nicely chosen. Wrong time period, I know, but in many ways rococo is the mannerist phase of the Baroque, much as Greco was the mannerist of the late Renaissance. Greco is perhaps the perfect illustration of how to reconcile an incessant concern for elegance with deep and heartfelt feeling, and I think that's what Rameau does in music.

François Velde

Other recordings:

Rameau: Les Grands Motets
La Chapelle Royale - Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonia Mundi 901078
Rameau: Les Grands Motets
Le Concert Spirituel - Hervé Niquet
FNAC Music 592096

And some related music:

Rameau: Cantates françaises
Ensemble Baroque de Limoges - Christophe Coin
Virgin Edition 61540

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Todd M. McComb