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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Leçons de Ténèbres

Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr
Dir: Emmanuel Mandrin

rec: Sept 29 - Oct 2, 2008, Saint-Antoine, Abbaye
Ambronay Éditions - AMY018 (© 2009) (65'34")

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): In monte Oliveti (H 111); Tristis est anima mea (H 112); François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Leçons de Ténèbres; Michel LAMBERT 1610-1696): Miserere; plainchant: Avertantur retrorsum, verset; Salvum me fac, Deus (Psalm 68 [69]); Zelus domus tuae, antiphon

In France the performance of Leçons de Ténèbres was one of the main liturgical events during the reign of Louis XIV. They became so popular that they were often performed during public concerts for which the audience had to pay. Of course these concerts took place during the day, instead of the early hours of the morning when the Lamentations originally were meant to be sung.

Although the texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah were set by Italian and German composers as well, the phenomenon of the Leçons de Ténèbres was typically French. That is reflected by the number of settings by French composers. One of them was Marc-Antoine Charpentier who wrote several cycles. Others include Michel-Richard de Lalande and Michel Lambert. François Couperin didn't compose as much religious music as some of his contemporaries, but his sacred oeuvre is of high quality, and his Leçons de Ténèbres belong to the best he has written.

It is known that he composed three sets of Leçons, for every day thee lessons, but for some reason only the Leçons for Thursday were published. Other settings from his pen have never been found. The first two Leçons are written for soprano with basso continuo, the third for two sopranos and bc. The soprano parts are different in tessitura: the soprano part in the first Leçon is a little lower than that in the second Leçon.

In this recording the Leçons are performed in the proper liturgical setting. The disc begins with the antiphon 'Zelus domus tuae' (For the zeal of my house hath eaten me up) which is followed by Psalm 69 (68), 'Salvum me fac, Deus' (Save me, O God) after which the antiphon is repeated. Then follows the short verset 'Avertantur retrorsum' (Let them be turned back and put to shame). These are sung in plainchant with faux-bourdon. The singers use some vibrato which seems to me out of place here.

The first Leçon is sung by Dorothée Leclair. The approach is more dramatic than one is used to and in my view more than is justified. Couperin's Leçons have a rather meditative character and therefore are more lyrical than, for instance, the settings by Lalande which are much more theatrical. The dramatic approach is reinforced by Ms Leclair's voice which is rather dark and strong. But I enjoyed her singing as she has a nice and pleasant voice. What spoiled my enjoyment is the frequent use of vibrato which is also applied with little consistency. As a result the ornaments Couperin has written out are not clearly discernible.

The second Leçon is performed by Eugène Warnier, and here the approach is more lyrical which also suits Ms Warnier's voice. But like Dorothée Leclair she uses a considerable amount of vibrato. I noticed the use of the tremolo in the organ part which is not played on a small organ but rather on the large organ of the Abbey where this recording was made.

The third Leçon is interpreted by Juliette Perret, the third premier dessus of the ensemble, and Eugène Warnier. Both are using vibrato, but their voices blend pretty well. Here as in the two previous Leçons I had the impression that the tempo is a bit faster than in other recordings I know. In comparison to the recording with Emma Kirkby and Agnès Mellon in particular the first and third Leçon are quite a bit faster, and that is particularly due to the performance of the letters from the Hebrew alphabet which precede every verse and are set as vocalises. I think the singers don't dwell on them enough, considering they were meant, as Catherine Cessac states in the booklet, to stimulate the audience's attention to the music of the verset that follows.

The first Leçon is followed by the responsory In monte Oliveti by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This is set for three voices - two sopranos and alto - but here they are sung by an ensemble, although the booklet doesn't indicate which singers are involved. It is nicely sung but again I notice too much vibrato. The acoustics also raise questions: there is some difference in sound between the tutti and the soli. The latter seem to be closer to the microphones which creates a contrast the piece doesn't require.

The second Leçon is followed by another responsory by Charpentier, Tristis est anima mea, scored for two sopranos and bc. The performance is divided into soli and tutti which seems to me rather questionable. What is worse is that the vibrato by the singers takes away some of the impact of the harmonic peculiarities in this piece, especially in the last section, 'Vos fugam capietis'.

The programme is concluded by a setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere, one of the penitential psalms: "Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness". The choice of this piece is a bit odd as Lambert is of an older generation than Couperin. Lambert died in 1696, whereas the Leçons de Ténèbres were published in 1713. Lambert didn't write many sacred works: apart from his own Leçons de Ténèbres this Miserere is his only extant religious work. It is written for three voices with two solo parts. Again we hear a performance with more than one voice per part. And the acoustical peculiarities are noticeable here as well. Emmanuel Mandrin sometimes changes the registration of the organ within a single verse, for which I can't see any reason.

To sum it up: I have certainly enjoyed this disc as the singing is of a high calibre. But there are too many questionable aspects in the performance practice to recommend this disc without considerable reservation. The concept of presenting the Leçons de Ténèbres in a liturgical context deserves praise, but that has happened before in a recording by Gérard Lesne and his ensemble Il Seminario Musicale, which is musically and stylistically more convincing, although the Leçons are not performed at the original pitch.

I am still waiting for a completely satisfying recording of Couperin's masterpieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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