Tuesday 5 July 2022

Evoking the Ancien Régime: grandeur & imagination in Jean-Joseph de Mondonville's Grands Motets

Jean-Joseph de Mondonville Grands Motets; Choir and orchestra Marguerite Louise, Gaetan Jarry; Chateau de Versailles Spectacles

Jean-Joseph de Mondonville Grands Motets; Choir and orchestra Marguerite Louise, Gaétan Jarry; Chateau de Versailles Spectacles
Reviewed 29 June 2022 (★★★★)

The 18th century composer's approach to this grandest of grand French sacred music genres is full of drama, imagination, rich timbres and striking textures

The French grand motet was a rather diverse genre very much associated with the Ancien Régime. Originally created in the 17th century, these large-scale choral settings were used in the very grandest of services, those in the King's chapel and the works sit somewhere between the motet and the oratorio in terms of style, though this could vary. Jean-Joseph de Mondonville is perhaps not a name that people conjure with, but a new disc of his highly dramatic grands motets seems to bring his music to life. 

Jean-Joseph de Mondonville wrote 17 grands motets between 1734 and 1755, of these just nine survive, partly because those written for royal use were not allowed to be published. This disc from Gaétan Jarry and the Chorus and orchestra Marguerite Louise on Chateau de Versailles Spectacles' own label features four of Mondonville's grands motets spanning virtually the whole of the composer's career, from Dominus regnavit of 1734 to Coeli enarrant gloriam of 1749 to In exitu Israel of 1753.

Mondonville was born in Narbonne, to an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. In Paris by 1733, he gained the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, by 1739 he was a violinist in the king's music and his motets had already been given at the Concerts Spirituels. He was appointed sous-maître in 1740 and, in 1744, intendant of the Chapelle royale. He maintained a career as a violinist whilst producing operas and motets, eventually becoming director of the Concerts Spirituels. The cover of the disc shows Quentin de la Tour's 1747 portrait of Mondonville.

Dominus regnavit was performed nearly 40 times between 1739 and 1772, including at Madame de Pompadour's home. Coeli enarrant gloriam was written by order of the Queen to be performed at the home of the Dauphine, whilst In exitu Israel, which premiered at court in 1753 was heard more than 20 times at the Concerts Spirituels between 1755 and 1762. 

What comes over from these performances is the combination of richness of texture with boldness of dramatic gesture in Mondonville's music. It is not operatic, but that he composed operas as well shows in his handling of his forces here. 

The disc opens with In exitu Israel and from the opening section we can appreciate Mondonville's strong, bold colours. Grandly expressive, his use of harmony creates a very distinct sound-world and there are some finely imaginative gestures such as the repeated chorus notes for the Red Sea being driven back. And elsewhere in the psalm, Mondonville takes advantage of the text to give us vivid tone-painting, particularly in the chorus. Mixed in with the choral textures are soloists; I was particularly struck by the solo 'Montes exultaverunt' where the tenor is in unison with the strings plus just a bassoon, yet there is plenty of other delights to enjoy, a poised soprano solo and a virtuoso bass moment.

Next comes the earliest of the motets, Dominus Regnavit, and here though it is grand there is a rather ancient style to the choral writing as if Mondonville had been studying lots of fugues and polyphony. Combined with his richly coloured approach to timbre, this makes for a striking listen. We have a striking tenor and bass duet that echoes this approach, and a duet for two sopranos with a magical texture consisting of just high strings and oboe, with no bass. Besides the learned element there is virtuoso writing for the chorus too, brilliantly realised here. 

Finally we have Coeli enarrant gloriam, where after an imaginative chorus there is a beautifully poised soprano duet and a striking bravura bass moment over sustained strings. But it is not so much the individual moments that count, rather the feeling of contrast, sustained drama and a highly imaginative approach. The end features a wonderfully fearless high tenor.

I had no idea what to expect when I first listened to these discs, but Mondonville's combination of drama, virtuosity and imagination create a wonderfully engaging sound-world, finely realised here.

Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1772) - In exitu Israel (1753)
Jean-Joseph de Mondonville - Dominus regnavit (1734)
Jean-Joseph de Mondonville - Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei (1749)
Mailys de Villoutres
David Witczak
Mathis Vidal
Virginie Thomas
Francois Joron
Choeur et orchestre Marie Louise
Gaétan Jarry (conductor)
Recorded 13-16 November 2020, 28-30 March 2021 at the Chapelle Royale, Chateau de Versailles
Chateau de Versailles Spectacles CVS063 1CD [67.39]

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