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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Leçons de Ténèbres"

Stephan MacLeod, baritonea
Arte dei Suonatori
Dir: Alexis Kossenko

rec: August 11 - 13, 2011, Monastery Opactwo Cystersów
Alpha - 185 (© 2012) (65'40")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Antiene (H 526); Antiene pour les violons flutes et hautboix a 4 part. (H 532); Après Confitebor: Antienne D la re sol bquarre (H 516); Offerte non encor exécutée (H 522); Offerte pour l'orgue et pour les violons flutes et hautbois (H 514); Ouverture pour l'Eglise (H 524); Ouverture pour le sacre d'un Evesque pour les violons flutes et hautbois (H 536); Ouverture pour le sacre d'un Evesque pour les violons flutes et hautbois (H 537); Pour plusieurs martyrs: Motet a voix seule sans accompagnement (Sancti Dei) (H 361)a; Pour un reposoir: Ouverture dez que la procession paroist (H 523); Pre Leçon de Ténèbres du Mercredy St pour une basse (H 120)a; Pre Leçon de Ténèbres du Jeudy St pour une basse (H 121)a; Première Leçon de Ténèbres du Vendredy Saint pour une basse (H 122)a; Symphonie en g re sol bmol a 3 flutes ou 3 violons (H 529)

Alexis Kosseno, Stefanie Troffaes, recorder, transverse flute; Olga Musial-Kurzawska, transverse flute; Lidewei De Sterck, Frédérique Brillouin, oboe; Tomasz Weselowski, bassoon; Aureliusz Golinski, Martyna Pastuszka, Barbara Altobello, dessus de violon; Ewa Golinska, Anna Nowak, haute-contre de violon; Dymitr Olszewski, Gabriel Bania, taille de violon; Tomasz Pokrzywinski, Anna Katynska, basse de violon; Mark Caudle, basse de violon, viola da gamba; Toshinori Ozaki, theorbo; Joanna Boslak-Górniok, harpsichord, organ

For many centuries Holy Week had a special place in the liturgical year of the Christian Church of the West. This resulted in a large corpus of music which was to be performed on the various days of that week. An important part of the repertoire is music for the Offices of Tenebrae, services which were celebrated on the evening before or the early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. France is one of the countries where these services were held in high esteem, and that is reflected by the music written for them. Some of the most prominent composers of the second half of the 17th century composed so-called Leçons de Ténèbres, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of them.

Charpentier wrote 31 leçons or lessons in total. These are settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in which the prophet expresses his sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century before Christ. In the Christian Church of the West these texts were interpreted as laments about the sins of mankind which were the reason for Christ to suffer and die on the cross. Every lesson ends with a verse from the book of the prophet Hosea (ch 14, vs 1): "Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God". In settings of the lessons the verses are separated by Hebrew letters which were usually set as vocalises, often with extended and virtuosic coloraturas.

We find these in many of Charpentier's settings as well, but not in those recorded here. The most frequently-performed date from the 1670s, and are usually scored for one to three (high) voices with basso continuo. Only in a few of them do melody instruments participate, mostly treble viols. In the 1690s Charpentier composed various lessons which are rather different. Most are for lower voices, from hautecontre to bass, and include instrumental parts, varying from two flutes to a complete instrumental ensemble of wind and strings. The setting of the Hebrew letters is much simpler; here they don't introduce a verse, but are added to the preceding verse.

A complete set of lessons comprised nine, three for each of the three days. However, the three lessons recorded here are not part of a complete set. The Leçons H 120-122 are the first lessons for each of the three days. In his liner notes Alexis Kossenko mentiones a number of passages which show the close connection between text and music. Charpentier makes use of various devices to express the text, such as musical figures, harmony - including harsh dissonances and chromaticism - as well as silences. The three settings include several striking examples of the latter. The instruments provide not mere accompaniment but contribute to the expression. Every lesson begins with a short instrumental prelude.

About half of this disc is filled with instrumental pieces. They represent the most underexposed part of Charpentier's oeuvre. They are classified as "sacred instrumental" in the catalogue as they were used either as introduction to parts of the liturgy or replaced them. They shed light on the composer's creativity in instrumental scoring, for example in the juxtaposition of violins and recorders in the Symphony in g minor or the split of the ensemble in two 'choirs' (Offerte pour l'orgue, H 514). In some pieces Charpentier imitates the practice in vocal music of opposing a petit choeur and a grand choeur, such as in the two Ouvertures pour le sacre d'un Evesque (H 536 and 537). There is some confusion about which instrument Charpentier meant with flûte. It seems that he usually had the recorder in mind, but in some pieces the range of the flûte parts seems to indicate that a transverse flute was intended. In this recording the most practical solution has been taken. It is also worth noticing that the string body is divided into the parts which were common in 17th-century France: dessus de violon, haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and basse de violon. Apparently Charpentier's instrumental pieces lack a part for the quinte de violon.

The programme alone makes this disc highly valuable. These Leçons de Ténèbres are largely unknown, and Charpentier's instrumental music is seldom played. They confirm that he was a brilliant composer who is often - and rightly so - mentioned in the same breath as greats such as Monteverdi, Bach and Purcell. It is interesting to note that Alexis Kossenko mentions the fact that Charpentier himself always wrote down the complete score, including the inner parts - unlike Lully, who had assistants to do that for him. He quotes Charpentier that "a chord is a chord only with its filling: it must be complete". It just shows how much attention he gave to the expression in his compositions and how important harmony was to him. That is one of the reasons that his music never fails to compel. This disc includes a rather curious find: a piece for solo voice without instrumental accompaniment. If you wouldn't know that Sancti Dei, a motet pour plusieurs martyrs was from Charpentier's pen, you would never have guessed it, and probably not even have placed it in the baroque era.

A programme as interesting and engaging as this deserves a perfect performance, and that is what it receives. I have never associated Stephan MacLeod with French music, but he does a very fine job. He sings with great sensitivity and understanding, both in regard to the expressive qualities of the music and its style. Arte dei Suonatori delivers colourful and refined performances of the instrumental parts. The Charpentier discography is quite extensive, but there is still much to discover in his oeuvre, as this disc proves. This is a highly valuable addition to the discography, and a disc to treasure.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Arte dei Suonatori

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