"Caeleste Convivium" (The Celestial Banquet) is a collection of eleven "petits motets" for three voices and continuo. They were put together by the composer Sebastien Brossard in 1696. Caeleste Convivium is one of the most accomplished sets of motets of its time and one of the jewels of the French musical heritage.
Ensemble Pierre Robert:
Francine van der Heijden, Johannette Zomer, dessus
Marcel Beekman, haute-contre
Robert Getchell, taille
Robbert Muuse, basse
Emilia Gliozzi, violoncelle
Laurent Le Chenadec, basson
Frederic Desenclos, grand-orgue & direction
Grand-orgue de Claude Parizot (1739)
restaure par Jean-Francois Dupont
Enregistre en novembre 2002 a Dieppe
a l'eglise Saint-Remy
This is one of a substantial number of Alpha back-issues that arrived when Forte started distributing the label in the US. Time constraints dictated that it was simply not possible to review all these CDs, but catching up on my auditioning of some of them recently, I came across the present disc, "C?lesti convivium." It seemed to me, both on musical and performance grounds, so outstanding as to merit bringing to the notice of interested readers, even at this latish hour.
The Flemish composer Daniel Danielis was born in Liege in April 1635. At the age of 22, he became organist of the cathedral of St. Lambert in his home city, but a year later took up a post as a bass singer at the north German court of Mecklenburg-Gustrow, becoming Kapellmeister in 1661. Nothing is known of his 20-year tenure in the post, other than it appears he spent periods away from the court, nor has any of the music he composed during this time survived. It seems probable that at least part of Danielis's time was spent in France, since after leaving Gustrow in 1681 he next turns up as one of a long list of unsuccessful candidates in the famous competition for one of the posts at the Chapelle Royale in 1683. Early the following year, Danielis gained the position of maitre de musique at Vannes Cathedral (Brittany), remaining there until his death on September 17, 1696.
The loss of the Danielis's compositions from a substantial part of his career means we are left entirely with music composed during his later life in France. The most substantial part of this corpus consists of 72 petits motets for between one and four voices, the contemporary popularity of which is attested by the multiplicity of copies found in some cases. The 11 included on the present CD were copied by the composer and collector Sebastian de Brossard into "The Celestial Banquet," a book that derives its name from the concentration of texts devoted to the Eucharist, although, contrary to the assertion in the notes, not all are devoted to the theme: Super flumina Babylonis is a paraphrase of the familiar words of the first part of Psalm 136 (137) ("By the waters of Babylon"), while Quo tendimus mortales? addresses worldly vanity and the transience of life, a ubiquitous topic in 17th-century spiritual writing.
All 11 motets are scored for three voices, mostly haute-contre, tenor, and bass, and continuo (there are three for two sopranos, and bass), here allotted to cello, bassoon, and the splendid 18th-century Parizot organ in the church of Saint-Remy in Dieppe, one of the incidental pleasures of the recording being the lovely ambience captured by the engineers.
Danielis's style is difficult to pin down. There is certainly a discernable Italian influence, and it is not a coincidence that copyists have been known to confuse his music with that of Carissimi (and Francois Couperin). The name of Charpentier might also be invoked. Yet somehow none of these associations seem convincing, and ultimately we're left with a voice of distinctive individuality. For that we have, I think, to look at least partly to the texts of these motets, which are suffused with the kind of ecstatic or extravagant rhetorical gesture much in favor during the counter-Reformation. "O"s, exclamation marks, and questions, sometimes answered in dialogue form, at other times rhetorical, abound. The imagery of the Eucharist as a joyous, transcendental feast to which all are invited is frequently invoked (in Propter nimiam, and Ad gaudia c?li, for example). Danielis sets the at-times inflamed texts with a degree of restraint that is nevertheless always fully aware of their inherent passion, alternating passages of solo recitative with trios of surpassing lyrical beauty, the flowing melismas spiced with piquant harmony. In Ad fontes amoris, much the longest of these motets, the composer maintains the structure by employing a rapturous refrain on the words "O bonitas miraculum/O pietatis prodigium" ("O miracle of goodness!/O prodigy of pity!"), the word "pietatis" colored by exquisite dissonance. Such madrigalisms abound throughout these motets, yet the euphoria remains constrained in the heart, not worn on the sleeve.
The performances capture the elusive qualities of these exquisite motets to near perfection, pointing and illustrating the words with understanding and sensitivity, yet maintaining a tasteful distance that leaves the listener free to make his own emotional response. All five singers, among whom only soprano Johannette Zomer is likely to be a familiar name, have fine voices, although critical duty compels me to admit that bass Robbert Muuse sounds a little grainy at times. But that is the only caveat to enter regarding this exceptional disc, an essential addition to any collection of French Baroque sacred music.