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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Dies Iræ, LWV.64/1 (1683) [20:47]
De Profundis, LWV.62 (1683) [22:31]
Te Deum, LWV.55 (1677) [39:29]
Sophie Junker, Judith Van Wanroij (soprano)
Matthias Vidal, Cyril Auvity (counter-tenor)
Thibaut Lenaerts (tenor)
Alain Buet (bass-baritone)
Chœur de Chambre de Namur;
Millennium Orchestra; Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García Alarcón
rec. live February 2018, Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as press preview.
ALPHA 444 (307224) [82:50] 

Multum in parvo: this is an excellent single-CD representation of the sacred music which won Lully such renown at the French court, even though he had no official position in the chapel royal1. And look at the generous playing time.

Lully’s Dies Iræ must be, at least in parts, one of the jolliest settings of that funereal work. It opens with great vigour, almost as if it were a setting of Te Deum, even though the male voices are intoning the plainsong words about the Day of wrath and doom impending. But it’s equally effective in capturing a mood of solemn reflection. The great variety of this setting for the funeral of Marie-Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV, is well represented on this recording, made at Versailles.

If you prefer three penitential settings together, Hervé Niquet with his Le Concert Spirituel offers very good value on a less expensive Naxos recording of Dies Iræ and De profundis, with Quare fremuerunt and O Lachrymæ (8.554398). As with Te Deum, below, Niquet offers a slimmer account of the two works common to the two programmes. The Naxos recordings are old friends, but I think that Alarcón’s full-fat treatment works even better.

Some recent recordings made at Versailles have been released on their new in-house Spectacles label, including a recent DVD video of Lully’s Te Deum and Biber’s Missa Salisburgiensis directed by Václav Luks (CVS012)2. I haven’t been able to see and hear the Versailles DVD, but I doubt that the performance of the Te Deum could be preferable to that from Leonardo García Alarcón and his team. Lully himself was in the course of directing a vigorous account of this work when he struck himself on the foot with his staff, an accident which led to his death from gangrene. I hope that Alarcón was more careful; had he been using the same sort of staff, the vigour of the performance suggests that he might have been in danger.

There’s an earlier Alpha recording of this work, from Le Poème Harmonique directed by Vincent Dumestre. That’s on an 18-CD selection which, while it offers excellent value, especially as currently offered for £34.68 by Presto, involves a major outlay (Les Maîtres du Baroque, Alpha 372). Equally inexpensive and involving less of an investment there’s a Naxos recording from Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet (8.554397, with Miserere and Plaude Lætare Gallia) and that’s my benchmark, along with the single-CD release of the Dumestre (Alpha 952, with Marc Antoine Charpentier Te Deum review).

The Naxos and the new Alpha are complementary; where Niquet scores with a snappy but stylish performance, Alarcón and his team bring out the grandeur with generally slower tempi, yet without ever allowing the music to drag. Dumestre pitches his tempi between the two, though with no sense of compromise. Settings of the Te Deum come in all sizes, from the simple Merbecke setting for the Anglican Prayer Book upwards, but most are large and the Lully benefits from the king-size treatment from Alarcón: Rex gloriæ, the King of glory, is as much Louis XIV as Christ.

But there are also moments of personal intercession in the concluding litany, as ‘we’ changes to ‘I’ – In te Domine speravi: Lord in Thee have I trusted, Let me never be confounded – so the rather quieter treatment from Niquet is also appropriate. I could be more than happy with any one of these recordings, so it’s safe to let coupling determine your choice – and here’s the problem, because all of the other music, not least the Charpentier Te Deum, is well worth obtaining. There are several Charpentier settings of this canticle – that on Alpha952 is of the better-known H146, which is also coupled with his celebrated Midnight Mass on another excellent Naxos recording from Kevin Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble (8.557229). Yet another very fine Naxos recording couples Te Deum, H147, with the Mass, H1, and the Canticum Zachariæ, H345 (8.553175).

There’s some brief – and well-deserved – applause at the end of the new Alpha programme. The recordings of these double-choir works are fuller than the Naxos equivalents; you may well need to listen at a slightly lower volume than usual. All in all, while the Naxos recordings come at an attractive price and are still well worth considering, the new Alpha is worth the extra outlay and now becomes my prime recommendation for this glorious music.

1 His duties as composer-in-ordinary covered the king’s private music. Hence the rather odd title chosen by the group Les Ordinaires, though their performances of Lully and contemporaries is hardly ordinary in the usual sense (Naxos 8.573814 – review).
2 See also my forthcoming review of Messe du Roi Soleil, music by Lully, Couperin and DeLalande, on that label (CVS008)

Brian Wilson

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