This splendid disc is an excellent introduction to a Baroque figure who composed sacred and secular music with equal authority and success. In his grands motets, especially the mature works featured on this splendid disc, Andre Campra (1660-1744) did not hesitate to introduce dazzling, technically demanding passages, both vocal and instrumental, which bring to mind the sumptuous glamour of Baroque operas. However, as William Christie's impeccable performance makes abundantly clear, these are profoundly spiritual works. While one is easily and understandably seduced by the sheer brilliance of the performance, the ensemble and soloists wear their great virtuosity lightly, so to speak, immediately revealing the music's spiritual depth. Naturally, Campra, like other great French composers of sacred music, paid close attention to the biblical text, often allowing the narrative to guide his musical inspiration. However, while Baroque composers of sacred music in France recognized the expressive power of rhetoric, rhetorical principles never completely defined music as an artistic experience. Thus, for example, in the motet De profundis, based on the meditation on despair in Psalm 129, the listener immediately, even without any reliance on the text, enters into a spiritual realm in which profound despair carries the promise of divine illumination. In Campra's music, like in reality, enlightenment is a process consisting of subtle transformations and revelations, and the performers (chorus, soloists, and instrumentalists) express all the contrasts, hidden beauties, unexpected insights, and religious passions of Campra's music. Not only does the dark luminosity of the ensemble's inimitable sound create an atmosphere of enchantment, but the performance removes the music from the confines of metric structure and perceived linearity, restoring it to a natural realm of imprecise precision, undefinable beauty, and unfathomable content.
All Music Guide
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CAMPRA - Grands motets
Andre Campra was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1660, the son of a surgeon from Turin, and grew up in the South of France, a region characterised by strong contrasts between sunlight and shade, exuberance and mysticism. He learnt music under Guillaume Poitevin at the excellent choir school of Saint-Sauveur Cathedral,1 from which he was temporarily suspended for an unauthorised visit to a show in one of the city's small theatres - a telling anecdote about a man whose life was to be divided between the church and the stage.
His first posts as maitre de chapelle were far removed from the splendour of Versailles and the stylistic influences of northern France, taking him to Toulon, Saint-Trophime in Aries (1681-1683) and, most importantly, Saint-Etienne in Toulouse, where he remained for eleven years. In 1694 he succeeded Jean Mignon as maitre de chapelle at Notre-Dame de Paris, an appointment he seems to have engineered for himself by making use of an influential patron, displaying a degree of duplicity in the process. But ambition is nothing without talent, of which Campra had no shortage, as can be seen from the variety of his activities during this period. In 1697 came the spectacular success of L'Europe galante, an opera-ballet performed at the Opera, innovative both in form and style, with marked Italianate features; extraordinarily successful, too, were his first two books of motets for one and two voices (1695, 1699), with their lively and even virtuoso writing for voice and instruments, plentiful and inspired melodies and, again, an abundant use of Italian forms.
Campra resigned from his post at Notre-Dame in 1700 to devote his career to opera, achieving considerable success with works like Hesione, Le Carnaval de Venise, Tancrede and Idomenee, but on the deaths of Louis xiv and Michel-Richard de Lalande, who symbolised a now bygone era and an outmoded approach to church music, he sought a position at court. It was probably the Regent, Philippe d'Orleans, who granted Campra his appointment, at the age of sixty-three, as sous-maitre of the King's Chapel, a post he shared with Gervais and Bernier.
Som-maitres were expected to produce original compositions. Campra took earlier motets written for Aix or Paris and reworked them, incorporating new music written for the Chapel musicians, whose quality remained unaltered when the court returned to Versailles. The music he composed for the Royal Chapel occupies a special place in his sacred output, which includes three masses, a plainchant hymn, sixty motets for solo voices and fifty-one grands motets for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
These works are collected in manuscripts, many of them in Campra's own hand, now kept in the so-called 'Chapelle du roi' archives in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
From the early grands motets like those of Lully and Dumont to the vast tableaux of Giroust and Gossec in the late eighteenth century, the form flourished and developed so radically because it gave composers great freedom: they were free to group the verses of a psalm to suit their purposes; they could either highlight ideas and strong images or else establish a mood evoking a concept of a spiritual nature. Campra is one of those composers who tend to respond to the literal suggestions of the psalm text, though not exclusively. A specific example of this dual approach may be found in the 'Dormierunt' section of Notus in Judea: the first part, aptly enough, is cast as a 'sleep' movement identical to the kind much favoured in the operas of the time, but this is interrupted as soon as the word 'invenerunt' introduces the abstract idea of victory, which is expressed in vocal flourishes. Campra's style is unique in its rapidly shifting yet forceful impressions, served by virtuoso writing for orchestra and chorus (significantly enough, it was Campra who introduced the use of instruments at Toulouse and Notre-Dame de Paris). He had no qualms about borrowing operatic techniques, albeit very discreetly. In the 'De caelo auditum' section of Notus in Judea, for example, the short, repeated string chords on the words 'terra tremuit' come straight from the tempetes (storm scenes) of Colasse and Marais. Campra uses a four-part orchestra and a large five-part chorus, choosing solo voices - and in some cases the instrument with which they carry on a dialogue - according to the meaning of the psalm text.
Notus in Judea, from Campra's first collection of psalm settings for large choir dedicated to Louis xv, was published by Ballard in 1737 but appears to date from 1725. The subject, 'The prophet foretells the victory of King Hezekiah over the Assyrians' (as defined in Jean-Philippe Lallemant's French translation of 1710), inspires a setting in martial vein, exalting the name of the formidable God of Jacob. It is divided into nine sections, striking a balance between solo sections and choruses.
Exaudiat te Dominus, a setting of Psalm 19 (20) for many years wrongly attributed to Blanchard, is thought to have been performed at the Invalides in March 1703 for the king's recovery from an illness. It includes a striking 'noise of war' section for two trumpets and drums supported by the organ; this is the high point of a work remarkable for its brilliant instrumentation, trumpets and drums giving great power to every verse of the text, which exalts the glory of God. Campra also makes skilful use of dialogues or duets in which the chosen instruments sound an elegant counterpoint (violins and oboes in 'Memor sit', two flutes for the duet 'Impleat Dominus').
The De profundis survives in a single autograph manuscript dated 1723. The text is that of Psalm 129 (130), to which the verse 'Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine', from the Mass for the Dead, is appended. Unlike other motets such as Notus in Judea, the separate parts have not survived, so the vocal and instrumental forces must be reconstructed, the only indications appearing in the haute-contre recit 'Si iniquitates observaveris' (flutes and violins) and the one for soprano 'A custodia matutina' (oboes, violins). With the exception of the short homophonic chorus 'Quia apud te propitiatio est' and the great concluding supplication, this grand motet gives great prominence to personal expression, in the form of three solo recits, a duo and a trio ('Et ipse redimet Israel').
The concert recorded here ended with an additional piece, the Introit from Campra's Mass for the Dead. This work did not achieve the same renown as Gilles' Requiem: no more than three copies are known to have survived, and the third was discovered only recently. The latter, furthermore, sheds no light on the date or the circumstances of the work's composition; being a mass scored for a large five-part choir, it may have been written for Notre-Dame de Paris and perhaps revised subsequently. Its brilliant style brings together a wide variety of elements which contribute greatly to the attractiveness of the work. The Introit brings out the Gregorian melody with skilful polyphonic writing, while the other sections, in concertante style, display dramatic contrasts similar to those in Campra's motets.
- Catherine Massip (translation: Adrian Shaw)