Ensemble Dumont - Henri Dumont: Les Litanies De La Vierge - Gramophone

For most people, the achievements of the seventeenth-century Belgian-born composer Henri Dumont have been obscured by the more famous figures of Lully and Lalande. For Peter Bennett, however, he “can justifiably be seen as the foundation on which French sacred music would stand for the next half century”, a composer who had a modernizing effect (most notably with respect to the use of basso continuo) on a repertoire whose style in the 1650s lagged behind that of other countries in Europe. Dumont has not been ignored by the record companies, but of the vocal works only Philippe Herreweghe’s old recording of grands motets on Harmonia Mundi now survives in the catalogue, Christophe Rousset’s attractive disc of small-scale motets on FNAC having disappeared together with its record company a couple of years ago. This beautifully recorded and enterprisingly programmed disc is, then, a welcome arrival. Reconstructing a sacred concert as it might have been heard in the Parisian household of Louis’s pious brother (and Dumont’s employer) Philippe of Anjou, it mixes some of the composer’s sacred works for two to five voices and continuo with pieces for small viol consort, some of which serve as preludes to the motets. There are also four anonymous works which seem to be old-style unaccompanied vocal pieces to which continuo parts were added during the 1750s.

This is music which is quietly rather than urgently expressive – clearly it was designed more to complement gently contemplative devotion than to excite any fervent religious passions – but it is almost unremittingly beautiful, and Ensemble Dumont’s singing and viol-playing have a grace and well-modulated sound which, though typically English, serve the pieces rather well. Helen Groves’s first soprano can occasionally dominate, it is true, but at the same time she gives the performances much of their distinctive colour, and her solos are well worth hearing. Quite simply, this is a meltingly gorgeous disc that you will never regret buying.

01 December 1997