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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Noël - Christmas Cantatas"

solistenensemble stimmkunsta; Ensemble 94
Dir.: Kay Johannsen
rec: Oct 8 - 11, 2007, Stuttgart, Stiftskirche
Carus - 83.412 (© 2008) (60'58")

Canticum in nativitatem Domini (H 393)a; In circumcisione Domini (H 316)a; In festo purificationis (H 318)a; In nativitate Domini nostri Jesu Christi canticum (H 421)a; In nativitatem Domini canticum (H 314)a; Magnificat (H 80)a; Noëls sur les instruments (H 531) (À la venue de Noël; Autre Noël, Laissez paître vos bêtes; O Créateur; Vous qui désirez sans fin); Noëls sur les instruments (H 543) (Joseph est bien marié; Les Bourgeois de Chastres; Or nous dites Marie; Où s'en vont ces guays bergers; Une jeune pucelle); Pour la fête de l'Épiphanie (H 395)a;

[SS] Andrea Lauren Brown, Undine Holzwarth, Edit Faludi, soprano; Marion Eckstein, Alexandra Paulmichi, Jennifer Permenter, contralto; Fabian Wöhrle, Daniel Schreiber, Jens Harnisch, tenor; Jens Hamann, Thomas Scharr, Dominik Wörner, bass; [E94] Gritli Kohler, Martin Heidecker, recorder, transverse flute; Christine Busch, Mechthild Blaumer, violin; Dietlind Mayer, violin, viola; Christine Wiegräber, cello; Ann Fahmi, violone; Andrea Baur, theorbo; Kay Johannsen, harpsichord; Veronika Brass, organ

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was a kind of outsider in French musical life of the second half of the 17th century. Whereas most French composers distanced themselves from any Italian influence, Charpentier went to Rome to study with Giacomo Carissimi, one of the most celebrated composers of vocal music of his time, who attracted students from all over Europe. When he returned to France after three years he was the subject of envy, cloaked in the reproach of being italianized. One of his admirers was another French composer, Sébastien de Brossard, himself an avid collector of Italian music. He wrote about Charpentier and the way he was treated: "The relationship to Italy that he maintained in his youth was the reason that led some French purists, or more precisely, those who were envious of the excellence of his music, to accuse him of having Italian tastes. After all, one can say, without trying to flatter him, that he extracted the best out of it - his works are ample evidence thereof".

And indeed, listening to Charpentier's music one is struck by the often theatrical nature of it, but at the same time they sound very French. One doesn't find any exaggeration in dramatic sense, like some Italians tended to do in order to achieve the maximum effect. Charpentier is unique in combining the extraverted Italian style with French elegance and refinement. That is something this disc delivers ample evidence of.

The core of this recording are four oratorios. It seems Charpentier didn't call them like that, and they are also referred to as motets. In New Grove, for instance, the pieces recorded here are listed under the headers of either 'occasional motets' or 'dramatic motets'. But their form derives from the pieces Giacomo Carissimi composed and which he was most famous for. They usually contain a part for the Historicus, who acts like a kind of 'evangelist' telling a story from the Bible. In these oratorios for Christmastide we also meet Herodes, the wise men and the shepherds. The role of the Historicus can be set for one singer or for a group of singers and even the tutti. In the oratorios on this disc the scoring is mostly for just three voices. Using a choir - although small - is probably not what Charpentier had in mind.

It could be different in the last item, In nativitatem Domini canticum (H 314), not an oratorio, but a sacred concerto without any roles, and set for four voices with instruments. Here Charpentier could have had ripieno singers in mind, joining the soloists in the tutti sections. The same could be the case for the Magnificat (H 80), which is also written in four parts. It is through-composed, and the various verses are only discernable through the alternation of soli and tutti.

I have already mentioned the use of a small choir in the tutti sections. It consists of three singers for each part, including female altos. I don't know how the parts they are singing - both soli and tutti - are described in the scores, but it was a widespread practice in France that the part between soprano and tenor was sung by an haute-contre, and the quite low parts the altos are singing in the oratorios also point into that direction. The altos of the vocal ensemble are singing their parts well, though, and that is true for all singers as well as the vocal ensemble as a whole. I also note with satisfaction that the Latin texts are pronounced the French way.

The vocal items are interspersed by instrumental Noëls - a typical French phenomenon. These Christmas carols were often played by instruments, either by an ensemble or a keyboard instrument, especially the organ. Charpentiers versions are rather simple harmonisations, and therefore well suited to bring a kind of entertainment to the programme. The instrumental ensemble plays them well, although sometimes I found the articulation a bit too sharp. The instrumental parts in the vocal pieces - strings and bc with two additional recorders in some - are also nicely played.

To sum up: this is a very good recording, well put together and well executed. It is a nice addition to the large catalogue of Christmas discs, and although some of the pieces may be available in other recordings, the performances are such that they can be welcomed without reservation. But first and foremost this disc is another testimony to the art of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose music never ceases to fascinate and appeal.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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