Gilles Requiem with Serpent

Jean Gilles: Requiem; CD recording by Orchestre Les Passions and Chœur de Chambre les Éléments, Jean-Marc Andrieu directing, and featuring Volny Hostiou on serpent. The recording also includes the motet Cantate Jordanis Incolæ. Ligia Digital # LIDI 0202196-8, obtained from Amazon France. June25-27, 2008

The Requiem by Jean Gilles (pronounced like the second syllable of "congeal", with the "g" leaning more towards a soft "j") is one of the great pieces of funereal music written in the Baroque era. Gilles (1668-1705) was head of music at Saint-Étienne in Toulouse, the successor of André Campra. He composed the Requiem on commission for the joint funeral of two Toulouse city leaders who had died within days of each other, but even though the music was well received during rehearsal, the men's sons backed out of the commission, refusing to pay. Gilles' response was to withdraw the piece unperformed, and it remained among his personal papers until his own death at age 37. As it worked out, the Requiem was given its first public performance at its composer's funeral. It was, however, posthumously successful, being often performed throughout the 18th Century for the funerals of the great and famous, including composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, the king of Poland, and King Louis XV to name but three.

The composer's manuscript disappeared during the French Revolution, with only some arrangements comprising the published record of its structure at that time. The 1764 version by Michel Corrette written for Rameau's funeral increased the size of the orchestra and also added timpani and carillon to simulate the peal of church bells. A later 1805 edition by Joseph Supries went further, adding horns, clarinets and bassoons. The best known version today is by Abbé Jean Prim, who in 1956 reworked Corrette's 1764 version, further bloating what should have been an intimate piece by adding more woodwinds plus horns and trumpets. For this recording, editors have compared three different unpublished 17th-century manuscript versions, along with considerable research into the church orchestras in Toulouse during Gilles' time, and they have succeeded in reconstituting a new version that is as close as possible to the original.

The circumstances of the origin of the motet Cantate Jordanis Incolæ are not well known, other than the likelihood that it was composed for some important event. In its seven movements it tells the Old Testament story of Zachariah, who upon being told by an angel that his sterile wife Elizabeth would bear him a son, refused to believe and was struck mute. Nine months later he recovered his speech when asked to name the boy, who grew to become John the Baptist. As with the Requiem, the text is sung in Latin. This piece was frequently performed between 1728 and 1771 in the programs of the series known as Concerts Spirituel. On this CD, the light nature of the motet contrasts nicely with the more somber requiem.

The performances on this CD use period instruments exclusively, consisting of nine bowed strings, theorbo, two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, serpent and organ. The sixteen member chorus includes four female sopranos, three countertenors, three tenors, three baritones, and three basses, schooled here to sing as closely as possible to what period French church Latin is believed to have sounded like. The soloists are soprano Anne Magouët, countertenor Vincent Lièvre-Picard, tenor Bruno Boterf, and baritone Alain Buet. The ensemble tuned at A=392, using a temperament by a Gilles contemporary, acoustician Joseph Sauveur.

This recording reveals a flawless performance by proficient and sensitive performers, and the music is delightful to listen to. The soloists are in fine voice, each sounding totally appropriate to the style of the period. The juxtaposition of the male altos with the female sopranos is seamless. The technical quality of the recording is also transparent and has a natural presence in an authentic acoustical environment. Perhaps most importantly for early brass aficionados, the music gives the serpent both ample and active ensemble opportunities as well as some nice duets along side the vocal soloists, and Volny Hostiou gives a beautiful performance. This is a fine example of the serpent being used in the Baroque music style.

Note that this CD, according to the record label distributor, will not be released outside of Europe. The review copy was easily obtained from Amazon France [www.amazon.fr], where it may be found by searching for "Gilles Requiem". Since there are other recordings that include different versions of this Requiem, you may recognize this particular CD by its cover art featuring a crowd scene and the word Requiem in bold red letters. The CD liner and booklet is exclusively in French; working in collaboration with personnel of the orchestra, I have prepared an English translation and have placed a PDF file of its CD booklet form on the Discography page of the Serpent Website, which readers may download and print.

Editors note: A YouTube Video of the work with the reviewed ensemble may be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzP9m3AABOQ

--Paul Schmidt