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Grand motets worthy of a king

Louis XIV Gate at Versailles (Max Pixel)

Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) succeeded Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of Louis XIV and was in charge of dinner music, where he provided oodles of deliciously entertaining baroque muzak. Good as that music is, if you want to turn it up a notch, go seek out de Lalande’s Grand Motets, where you will notice that greater things come of praising the Lord than trying to accompany roast pheasant with candied bacon-apples on a purée-of-gooseberry sauce velouté.

If this whets your appetite – the idea of French baroque motets, not roast pheasant – the musicians of the Versailles Baroque Music Center and the Collegium Marianum have just the thing: a most palatable live recording of three such motets, starting with Venite, exultemus Domino. The name-giving first movement of said motet opens with a few dance-inducing instrumental bars before letting the chorus lunge into the “Come, let us praise the Lord / let us make a joyful noise to God, our salvation” (Psalm 94). And de Lalande (alternatively spelled Delalande) does just that: he makes a very joyful noise indeed. There is nothing austere about this motet; if anything, it sounds more like something from Rameau’s wildly entertaining opera Les Indes galantes.

The De profundis, as might be expected from a text that starts with “Out of the depths, I have cried to you, Lord …” (Psalm 129), is of a more subdued nature, exchanging exuberance for doleful depth. And in the third motet, on Psalm 96 (“The Lord has reigned, let the earth rejoice”), we are back to a cheerful mood, if not the outright jubilation of the first. What remains the same throughout is the fact that the music of de Lalande, who was about one generation older than his eventual royal chapel successor, Henry Madin (or JS Bach over in Leipzig), is invigorating and celebratory and not particularly cerebral for sacred middle-period baroque. In that, it is closer to Jan Dismas Zelenka than Heinrich Schütz – not surprising, since austerity wasn’t really Louis XIV’s thing, in music or otherwise. That grandeur and good-natured pomp, in combination with the overarching beauty, makes this one of the most delectable discs to have come out last year.

The whole spiel is caught in the roomy acoustic of the Versailles Royal Chapel, for which these works were explicitly written (while construction was going on) and which lends a lush and pliant suppleness to the proceedings, comfortable like a broken-in leather chair. The soloists sing eloquently, with memorable French timbre: a slightly nasal twang from tenor François Joron and artless simplicity from soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffrey. The chorus performs with zest and the pointed accuracy necessary to keep their parts from running into one another in the rich acoustic.

The historical instrument orchestra under Olivier Schneebeli more than equals the joyous vocal music-making and zips along with panache. Music befitting not just King Louis XIV but also, so de Lalande will have hoped, the King of Kings.

Michel-Richard de Lalande, Grand Motets, Les Pages & les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Collegium Marianum; Glossa Music