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Michel LAMBERT, François COUPERIN: Leçons de Ténèbres

[I] Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Leçons de Ténèbres
Monique Zanetti, soprano
Ensemble Les Temps Présents
rec: April 2018, Aix-en-Provence, Conservatoire Darius Milhaud (Auditorium Campra)
Aeolus - AE-10113 (© 2020) (58'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Louis COUPERIN (c1626 - 1661): Psaume in F (VM 7.675); Psaume in F (VM 675); Simphonie in g minor; Michel LAMBERT: Première Leçon du Mercredy Saint; Deuxième Leçon du Mercredy Saint; Troisième Leçon du Mecredy Saint; Etienne RICHARD (1621-1669): Allemande in g minor

Sylvie Moquet, Sylvia Abramowicz, viola da gamba; Claire Antonini, theorbo; Dominique Serve, organ

[II] François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Leçons de Ténèbres
Sophie Junkera; Florie Valiquetteb, soprano
Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal
Dir: Stéphane Fuget
rec: June 13 - 17, 2020, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS034 (© 2021) (53'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

François COUPERIN: Première Leçon pour le Mercredy Sainta; Deuxième Leçon pour le Mercredy Saintb; Troisième Leçon pour le Mecredy Saintab; Victoria Christo resurgenti (Motet pour le Jpur de Pâques)ab Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726): Cantique Quatrième: Sur le Bonheur des Justes et le Malheur des Réprouvésab

Lucile Boulanger, Alice Coquart, viola da gamba; Pierre Rinderknecht, theorbo; Stéphane Fuget, harpsichord, organ

In the baroque period each country had its own traditions in the field of music for Passiontide. Oratorio Passions, in which the narrative of the Gospels was the core, seem to have been written mainly in Germany; only a few of such works are known from Italy, and nothing in this genre was written in France. On the other hand, in Italy the Stabat mater was frequently set. Obviously, there was no need for such music in Protestant Germany. However, as far as I know, it was never set by French composers, even though all of them were firmly Catholic. In contrast, quite a number of composers contributed to the genre that was the heart of Passiontide music in France: Leçons de Ténèbres, settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The three Leçons de Ténèbres by François Couperin are by far the best-known and most frequently-performed. His contemporary Michel-Richard de Lalande also contributed to the genre, and so did the main representative of the previous generation, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He composed several sets of Leçons de Ténèbres, of which only a few are really well-known. In his settings of these texts, he was inspired by Lambert, who was not only a famous composer of airs sérieux, but also a fine singer and an influential singing teacher. Not unimportantly, he was the father-in-law of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who laid the foundation of a typically French opera. Lully, by the way, himself never wrote Leçons de Ténèbres.

Lambert composed two sets. The second of them is from 1689 and was recorded for the first time by singers and instrumentalists under the direction of Ivete Piveteau (Virgin Classics, 1989). It seems to be the only recording available to date, which is a shame, as the performances are rather disappointing. In 2018 Harmonia mundi released a twofer with the complete first set, dating from 1662/63, and - like the second set - scored for solo voice and basso continuo. The performer, the baritone Marc Mauillon, in his liner-notes, stated: "According to witnesses at the time, we know that these Leçons by Michel Lambert were performed by three [female] singers during the Tenebrae services but we chose the option in this recording of providing a version for male voice, to take into account that the composer himself must have sung these pieces - the score, even if we know that it is not autographed, leads us to believe that it is more of an 'aide-mémoire' rather than a ready to be performed version - and that he sang his own court airs, even though they were written for soprano". In my review, I added that this left room for another recording, with female voices.

Such a recording is the first of the two reviewed here. However, whereas Mauillon recorded the complete set, Monique Zanetti confines herself to the three Leçons for Maundy Thursday. Moreover, the interpretation is less than ideal. In the first of the Leçons, Zanetti's performance is rather bland; it is only the third which shows real engagement. We know Zanetti as a singer who uses quite a lot of vibrato, and that is not any different here. I find that hard to swallow, generally in early music, but especially in this kind of repertoire.

Those who have no problems with that should consider adding this disc to their collection. Others may hope for a better recording, ideally of the whole set, by a soprano.

It was already mentioned above that the three Leçons by François Couperin are among the best-known. It seems that he composed three sets of Leçons, for every day three lessons, but for some reason only the Leçons for Maundy Thursday were published. Other settings from his pen have never been found. The first two Leçons are written for soprano, the third for two sopranos, all with basso continuo. The soprano parts are different in tessitura: the soprano part in the first Leçon is a little lower than that in the second. Stylistically, they are a mixture of French and Italian elements. They include some quite dramatic passages, and Couperin also uses harmony for expressive purposes. As was customary in settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Hebrew letters preceding each section are set to long melismas.

The mixture of French and Italian elements explains some of the differences between performances. Some interpreters emphasize the French elements, and opt for a more elegant interpretation, which is in line with the social ideals of the time, that strong emotions should not be displayed in public. Other performers opt for a more dramatic performance, sometimes at the brink of opera. The recording under the direction of Stéphane Fuget ranks among the latter category. A good example is a passage from the fourth section of the Première Leçon: "All her gates are desolate: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness".

It is pretty common to add Couperin's Easter motet Victoria Christo resurgenti, and that is the case here as well. However, before that another piece is inserted, the Cantique Quatrième: Sur le Bonheur des Justes et le Malheur des Réprouvés (On the happiness of the just and the woe of the forsaken) by Lalande. It is a setting of a text by Jean Racine, and a lament on the sins of mankind and the evil in the world. That makes it a meaningful addition to this programme of music for Passiontide.

Unfortunately the liner-notes fail to provide us with any information about this work. That is all the more regrettable as it is a little-known piece. It is one of the shortcomings of this production. Another one is that we get an essay about the practice of ornamentation in French baroque music, written by Stéphane Fuget, but the connection to the music performed here remains entirely unclear. The booklet also includes a biography of Couperin, but the music is not discussed. It has to be said that the production standard of this label does not keep pace with the quality of the repertoire and of many performances.

The latter is a problem here. I have nothing but praise for the skills of singers and instrumentalists, but my problem with Monique Zanetti's performance of Lambert's Leçons de Ténèbres manifests itself here as well. Both singers use way too much vibrato, especially Florie Valiquette. It is a mystery to me, why singers think that this is needed to realise an expressive performance. Without it these pieces have so much more impact, as the text is more clearly understandable and the use of harmony to express its affetti much more effective.

Fortunately, there are enough alternatives for Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres. That is different in the case of Lalande's Cantique; I have only found a recording of many years ago by Les Arts Florissants (which I have not heard), but which may not be available anymore.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Florie Valiquette
Ensemble Les Temps Présents
Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal

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