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François COUPERIN, Michel-Richard DE LALANDE: Leçons de Ténèbres

[A] "Couperin, Lalande: Leçons de Ténèbres"
Emma Kirkbya, Agnès Mellonb, soprano; Charles Medlam, viola da gambac; Terence Charlston, organd

rec: Sept 2005, East Woodhay (Hampshire, UK), St Martin's
BIS - CD-1575 (© 2007) (69'12")

[B] "François Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres"
Anne Grimme, Johannette Zomerf, soprano
La Sfera Armoniosag
Dir: Mike Fentross

rec: Jan 2003, Deventer, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Channel Classics - CCS SA 20306 (© 2006) (61'11")

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Première Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saintacd,eg; Seconde Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saintbcd,fg; Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saintabcd,efg; Michel-Richard DE LALANDE (1657-1726): Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Mercredy Saintacd; Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Vendredy Saintbcd; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Les voix humainesg [1]; Robert DE VISÉE (c1655-c1732): Les Sylvains de Mr. Couperinh

[LSA] Paulina van Laarhoven, viola da gamba; Mike Fentross, theorboh; Menno van Delft, organ

(Sources: [1] Marin Marais, 2e Livre de Pièces de Viole, 1701)

The Leçons de Ténèbres by French composers like Couperin and Lalande are part of a long tradition of setting texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to music to be performed during Holy Week. The Lamentations were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah to express the sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. In them the prophet doesn't hide the fact that these were the result of the people turning away from God. Therefore when the Christian Church used these Lamentations to express grief over the passion and death of Jesus each part was concluded with the phrase: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God".

The Lamentations became a part of the Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday, taking place in the early hours of the morning. Originally sung to plainchant, from the 15th century on composers started to set them polyphonically. At the time of Louis XIV they were not sung in the morning but in the evening before: the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday were sung at Wednesday, the next on Thursday and Friday respectively. This is reflected in the names of the Leçons de Ténèbres: Couperin's settings are written 'pour le Mercredy Saint', for Ash Wednesday, and uses the texts originally intended for Maundy Thursday.

The word Leçon derives from the place of the Lamentations within the Matins. The Matins service consisted of three Nocturnes, each containing three Psalms with their respective antiphons, and three lessons (Leçons) with their responsories. The lessons of the first Nocturne were taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The word ténèbre (from the Latin tenebrae, darkness) refers to the habit of gradually extinguishing 15 candles during the service.

Although French composers wrote their settings of the Lamentations for performances in churches and convents, they were mostly sung by singers from the opera, which was closed during Holy Week. This did not meet universal approval as "they are placed behind a curtain, which they draw back now and again to smile at their supporters in the congregation". The popularity of the performances of the Leçons and of their interpreters made some churches even require entrance fees.

The settings presented on the BIS disc are quite different. The three Leçons for Ash Wednesday are the only three by Couperin which have come down to us. Whether he has written a full set of nine is not known; only these three were published in 1714. The first two are for solo voice, the third for two voices, all with basso continuo only. As the tessitura of the second setting is a little lower than the first it is appropriate to use two different singers for the two solo settings. The Hebrew letters which precede every verse are long and virtuosic vocalises, whereas the verses are much more declamatory in character. This reflects the influence of the Italian style: Couperin was the main advocate of the mixture of French and Italian taste in music.

In his settings Michel-Richard de Lalande goes further in text expression: he was even stronger influenced by the Italian style than Couperin. They were originally sung by his wife and his two daughters who were renowned singers, and praised for the sweetness of their voice and their excellent diction. Only the third Leçons for the three days have survived, and probably in the form of a later reworking of the originals. Italian elements are the use of dacapo, recitative-like passages, changes in rhythm and a vivid continuo part. The settings recorded here end with an identical chaconne on the concluding phrase. Here the word 'Deum' is singled out by a long vocalise.

The recording presents a somewhat unlikely combination of singers. On the one hand Enma Kirkby, whose singing is rather introverted and who hasn't performed much opera and not very much French music. On the other hand Agnès Mellon, who has much experience in secular cantatas and opera, both French and Italian, for instance as a member of William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. Therefore it isn't surprising that she is the most extraverted and dramatic of the two. That is in particular the case in the second Leçon by Lalande. Here and in the second Leçon by Couperin she effectively uses the pretty strong low register of her voice. Emma Kirkby not only has a lighter voice, she also is a little more modest in expression, but she definitely sings more theatrical than usual in Lalandes first Leçon.

Emma Kirkby has previously recorded Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres, alongside Judith Nelson, with Christopher Hogwood and Jane Ryan. The differences between that performance and the present are striking. First of all, here the French pronunciation of the Latin texts is used, in contrast to the Italian pronunciation of the old recording. In addition, the performance here is more extraverted, with a stronger declamation of the text and more dynamic differences. In general these are all improvements. A more theatrical approach seems to me justifiable as long as it doesn't destroy the meditative character of the Leçons de Ténèbres, but I think this performance is staying on the safe side in this respect.

I am less happy with the use of vibrato: it is still limited, but more extensive than in the older recording, and I don't consider that an improvement. Ms Kirkby probably had the feeling this was necessary as Agnès Mellon uses much more vibrato than she herself normally does and that she had in a way to adapt her style of singing to Ms Mellon's. That is certainly the case in Couperin's third Leçon where the ladies seem to have found the middle ground between their own personal styles of singing. The performance is better than what I expected, but I think the blending of the voices is less than ideal.

Having said that the performers certainly have come up with captivating performances which seem to have found the middle between meditation and drama. Therefore I recommend this recording which I rate higher than some other recent recordings of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres. From a strictly stylistic point of view I have my problems with these interpretations in regard to the use of vibrato. After all, it is perfectly possible to sing with great expression while using a minimal vibrato as is shown by the recording of Lalande's three Leçons de Ténèbres by Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha 030).

The performance of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres by Emma Kirkby and Agnès Mellon maybe less than ideal, the recording of La Sfera Armoniosa is even less so. Here not only the third Leçon is marred by too much vibrato from both singers, the other two Leçons are suffering from the same problem. It is so strong that it is hard to discern between the vibrato and the trills Couperin has prescribed.

Here the French pronunciation of Latin is also applied, but not consistently. In addition the tempi are problematic. They are generally too slow: the first Leçon, for instance, takes 20'27", whereas in the BIS recording it only lasts 15'29". In addition the tempi vary consistently, and towards the end of the third section of the second Leçon the performance almost comes to a standstill. The addition of two instrumental pieces doesn't make that much sense; vocal music of a comparable character had been much preferable.

This recording is no serious competition to existing performances of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Emma Kirkby
Agnès Mellon

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