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JEAN GILLES (1668 - 1705)

Messe en ré
Te Deum

Cécile Dibon-Lafarge, Anne Magouët, soprano
Vincent Lièvre-Picard, haute-contre
Jean-François Novelli, tenor
Alain Buet, baritone
Cyrille Gautreau, Christophe Sam, bass
Choeur de chambre les éléments
Les Passions - Orchestre baroque de Montauban
Dir: Jean-Marc Andrieu

Ligia Digital 202246

Jean Gilles was especially famous for his Messe des morts. In 1756 a French author wrote: “Today there is seldom a funeral service with music without a performance of Gilles's mass”. It was also performed frequently at the Concert Spirituel until 1770. Another French author stated: “The victim of death in the bloom of his years, he has caused us to mourn our loss by the pieces he left us. Gifted with the most fluent genius, he might have replaced the famous Lalande. The Diligam te and his Messe des Morts are two masterpieces”.

It is indeed very likely that if Gilles had lived longer he would have become much better known - and not just for his Requiem - and probably have been ranked among the very best composers of the French baroque. The “fluent genius” comes to the fore in other compositions as well, as recent explorations of his oeuvre show. This disc is the last in series of three; previous recordings included the Messe des morts and the Lamentations.

In contrast to many other composers Gilles didn't come from a musical family; his father was an illiterate labourer. In 1679 he entered the choir school of the Cathedral of St Sauveur at Aix-en-Provence, where he received his education from Guillaume Poitevin, who had also been the teacher of André Campra. When Poitevin retired as maître de musique in 1693 Gilles succeeded him. In April 1695 he moved to Agde where he acquired the same position. Two years later he moved again, to Toulouse this time, where he was appointed maître de musique of the Cathedral of St Etienne.

From his youth Gilles suffered from poor health, and therefore his early death could hardly have come as a surprise. The result is that his oeuvre is rather small, but any piece from it is of a substantial nature, and confirms the qualities which so prominently come to the fore in his Messe des morts. The Te Deum is just one example. It was written in 1798 at the occasion of the Peace Treaty of Ryswick which brought an end to the War of the League of Augsburg. The choral sections show Gilles's mastery of counterpoint. The récits for hautecontre and tenor bear witness to his melodious gifts. Gilles was also an original composer. ‘Tu devicto mortis aculeo’ (Breaking the stinger of death you have opened the kingdom of heaven to the faithful) is set as a trio of three basses and three bass instruments, creating a wonderful effect, especially as they are juxtaposed to two violins.

The form of the trio is also used more than once in the Mass in D whose year of composing is not known. The fact that the only extant copy dates from 1726 confirms the fame of Gilles' music long after his death. It is scored in five parts for soli and tutti and four-part orchestra. The first trio is the ‘Christe eleison’, this time for haute-contre, tenor and bass. The ‘Laudamus te’ from the Gloria is then scored for three basses, after a brilliant opening of this section by the haute-contre. The ‘Qui tollis’ is a wonderful récit for the tenor. The Credo begins with a juxtaposition of a récit de taille and a duet of the two sopranos. A tutti section is followed by the ‘Crucifixus’, another trio of haute-contre, tenor and bass. They are then joined by the soprano in the quartet ‘Et resurrexit tertia die’. Before the Credo comes to a close we hear a second trio of three basses: ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam’. The ‘Benedictus’ is a virtuosic solo for bass. It needs to be said that most solo sections are demanding, especially because of the written-out ornamentation.

One of the impressive aspects of this recording is the amount of effort in regard to the necessary restoration and reconstruction of the score of the Mass. For instance: only the dessus and basses of the orchestral score were copied; the inner parts had to be reconstructed which was even more complicated as no basso continuo part had been preserved. The instrumentation was also not indicated nor is always mentioned which parts should be performed by soloists or by the tutti.

As far as the performance practice is concerned: the interpreters have painstakingly taken into account everything that is known about performing habits in France in Gilles’ time and even more specifically in the Toulouse region. This includes the use of a pitch of a=392Hz, “the pronunciation of the Vulgar Latin avoiding Paris or Versailles nasalization, the Sauver (1653-1716) temperament softened, the unequal short rhythmic values, the reasonable addition of trills on altered notes and of cadences, particular attention to articulations and accents connected to the prosody and to dance (especially for the tempi), the equilibrium of the vocal and instrument [sic] ensembles, the use of instruments closely related [to] the instrumental practice in Toulouse during that period (notably le serpent)”. This is quite impressive and shows what it takes if you want to give a historically and musically accurate interpretation of music of the past, and especially repertoire which is in some respects outside the mainstream.

That is only worth the effort if the performances are of the highest standards. That is certainly the case. The soloists are outstanding, and so are the choir and the orchestra. This is a wonderful and often exciting disc. It is hard to imagine a better way to reveal the “fluent genius” which Jean Gilles most definitely was. This disc is another monument for a truly great composer.

Johan van Veen, 22 July 2013

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