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L'Occitanie baroque des Pénitents Noirs
Bernard-Aymable DUPUY (1707-1789)
Nisi quia Dominus, grand motet [16:24]
Louis-Antoine LEFEBURE (c1700-1763)
Afferte Domino, petit motet [8:13]
Cantate Domino, grand motet [19:38]
Jean-Joseph MOURET (1682-1738)
Benedictus Dominus, petit motet [09:10]
Joseph LAGUNA (1723-after 1792)
Domine Dominus, grand motet [6:47]
Miserere mei Deus, grand motet [9:46]
Marlène Desauvage, Clémence Garcia, Eva Tamisier (soprano), François-Nicolas Geslot (haute-contre), Raphaël Marbaud (bass)
Ensemble Antiphona / Rolandas Muleika
rec. 2016, Chartreuse Saint Sauveur, Villefranche-en-Rouergue, France DDD
Texts and translations included
PARATY 217162 [70:02]

The musical map of a country in a particular period is closely connected to the political landscape. The fact that so many composers of renown were active in 17th and early 18th-century Germany is the direct result of the large amount of independence of landgraves, dukes and electors. They had their own court and aimed at attracting the best musicians of their time, not only for their own enjoyment, but also to show off. In contrast, France was strongly centralised. Paris was the political, but also the cultural and musical centre of the country. It was the place to be for performing musicians and composers. It is no coincidence that many musicians from elsewhere settled in Paris to further their career. That does not mean, that nothing happened in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, those activities, the music written and performed outside the centre and their composers often remain under the radar. From that perspective a disc which fills in the blank areas on the musical map is most welcome.

That is the case with the present disc. The Pénitents Noirs in its title - in English: Black Penitents - refers to the chapel of that name in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, a town in the south of France, northwest of Montpellier and northeast of Toulouse. It is not only an important historical site, but also includes a collection of handwritten scores and some musical instruments, among them the serpent played on this disc. The musical heritage bears witness to a rich tradition of music making and composing in the region. The chapel is connected to the Black Penitents confraternity, which consisted of both laymen and clerics. At the end of the 18th century the town had 8,500 inhabitants, 300 of which were members of the confraternity.

During the restoration of the chapel in 1982 a number of scores were retrieved. These are now preserved in the municipal archives of Villefranche. This collection gives some idea of the repertoire sung in the town before the French Revolution. Not all the music is from the town itself, but rather from the wider region, including Toulouse. As Françoise Talvard writes in her liner-notes, requests for scores have been retrieved as evidence for the numerous exchanges between chapters as well as between fraternies. Moreover, the chapter also copied music printed in Paris, and this explains, for instance, the inclusion in the present programme of a petit motet by Jean-Joseph Mouret.

Two composers in the programme are from the region. Bernard-Aymable Dupuy was born in Toulouse, where he worked for most of his life. There he played a key role in music life, and wrote the music for both religious and secular institutions. Nisi quia Dominus belongs to the genre of the grand motet, which is a particularly French form of sacred music, scored for soloists, choir and orchestra, and usually on a text from the Book of Psalms. This motet is a setting of Psalm 123. Such pieces often open - after an instrumental introduction - with a section for solo voices. That is the case here too: the first section is a duet of hautecontre and bass. The solos are called récit, which is not the same as recitative, but a general indication of a solo episode. Sections for one or two solo voices alternate with tutti episodes. The second section is a solo for basse-taille, meaning a baritone, on the text “Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: then the proud waters had gone over our soul”. This is vividly illustrated in the orchestra, especially the lower parts.

The other regional composer is Joseph Laguna, who worked for a number of years as an organist in Béziers, a town southwest of Montpellier. In 1756 he stayed for a while in Rouergue and at that time he wrote the motet Domine Dominus, a setting of the first verse of Psalm 8, for soprano solo, choir and orchestra. The verse is sung eight times, albeit in different vocal and instrumental scorings and harmony. The copy of this motet in the Villefranche archive is the autograph.

Two pieces have been preserved without the name of the composer. Cantate Domino is a setting of Psalm 49. It is notable that this piece is in three parts, both in the vocal and in the instrumental scoring: two upper voices (sopranos) and bass. The solos are mostly for the two sopranos, and there is one duet for soprano and bass. The disc ends with Miserere mei Deus, a setting of three verses (1, 2 and 20) of Psalm 50 (51). It seems likely that the two sections were originally the first and last of a complete setting of this psalm, but in her liner-notes Françoise Talvard writes that the conductor's sheet suggests that this shortened version may have been performed regularly at the time. The piece opens with an introduction from the serpent. This instrument played a major role in liturgical music from the 17th to the 19th century.

The grands motets are juxtaposed to two specimens of their more intimate counterpart, the petit motet, scored for one or more solo voices and basso continuo, sometimes with a few additional melody instruments. The two motets included here are both scored for an hautecontre, that typical French voice type which played a role comparable to that of a male alto - castrato or falsetto - in Italian music. The French didn’t like that kind of voice, and preferred the ‘natural’ sound of a high tenor. In both pieces the highest notes of the soloist are explored. Afferte Domino is a song of praise, based on verses from Psalm 28 and Psalm 97. It is in four sections; the last being a repeat of the first. Louis-Antoine Lefebure (or Lefebvre) was from Peronne and worked for most of his life as an organist in Paris. This motet and Mouret’s Benedictus Dominus have both been preserved in Villefranche in copies. Mouret was from Avignon and made a career in Paris as a composer of music for the stage and of cantatas. His sacred output is very small. The motet recorded here is a setting of verses from Psalm 143, and is a technically demanding piece.

This and the other petit motet are given outstanding performances by François-Nicolas Geslot. Inparticular, the exploration of the upper register is admirable. The other soloists are mostly rather good; only the bass sometimes uses a little too much vibrato. Most of the soloists are part of the choir, which guarantees maximum integration, which is especially important as récits and choral sections are often not formally split. Choir and orchestra are first-class. The performers are enthusiastic and convincing advocates of this repertoire, which is either little known or even completely unknown.

This disc shows that the investigation of the repertoire in regions far away from Paris is well worth the effort. The pieces performed here are of fine quality and one can only hope that more music from this and other regions will be brought to our attention.

Johan van Veen

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