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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): Méditations pour le Carême

Ensemble Les Surprises
Dir: Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas

rec: Sept 9 - 11, 2019, Paris, Église luthérienne Saint-Pierre
Editions Ambronay - AMY056 (© 2020) (59'49")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Charpentier

Sébastien DE BROSSARD (1655-1730): O plenus irarum dies; Salve Rex Christe; Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Méditations pour le Carême (H 380-389); Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Prélude in D [1]; Robert DE VISÉE (c1660/65-after 1732): Tombeau de Mesdemoiselles de Visée

Source: [1] Marin Marais, Pièces de viole, 1686

Paco Garcia, haute-contre; Martin Candela, tenor; Étienne Bazola, baritone; Juliette Guignard, viola da gamba; Étienne Galletier, theorbo; Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, harpsichord, organ

Passiontide is one of the main events in the ecclesiastical calender of the Christian church. It has resulted in a large repertoire of music to be performed during the last week before Easter, or - more generally - the forty days preceding it, known as Lent. However, there is quite some difference between the various countries and regions in Europe as far as the character of the repertoire is concerned. Oratorios, either based on the narrative in the Gospels or on paraphrases of it are known mainly from Germany and Italy, but are almost entirely absent in France. Most of the music for this period in the ecclesiastical year consists of settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, known as Leçons de Ténèbres. One of the most productive composers of such pieces was Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He is virtually the only composer who also wrote other kinds of music for this time of the year, such as a few oratorios. That has everything to do with the fact that he was strongly influenced by the Italian style which he had become acquainted with during his sojourn in Rome. It was in particular Giacomo Carissimi who made a strong impression on the young composer and whose music had a lasting influence on his development. Charpentier's Italian leanings were also responsible for his being not considered for a major post at the court of Louis XIV and for his rather problematic relationship with Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Among the music for Lent are the Méditations pour le Carême (Meditations for Lent) which are the main subject of the present disc. This is a cycle of eight short motets for three voices and basso continuo. The three vocal parts are for haute-contre (the typically French high tenor), tenor and baritone. This is quite a common combination of voices in Charpentier's oeuvre. The important role of the haute-contre in his compositions is undoubtedly due to the fact that this was his own type of voice. Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, in his liner-notes, characterises this cycle as a via crucis. The first two motets refer to the causes for Christ's Passion: the Fall of man, resulting in the earth's being a desolate place. The first motet opens with the words "With desolation is all the land made desolate", and describes how mankind's hard labour doesn't give any profit, "because of the fierce wrath of the Lord". The second motet expresses mankind's cry for help. The text of the third motet is also part of the Tenebrae Responsories: Tristis est anima mea, in which Christ expresses his willingness to be sacrificed for mankind. The following motets are about scenes from the Passion story: the fourth motet describes the betrayal by Judas, the fifth Peter's denial, and the sixth the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate. The seventh motet is about the three hours of darkness at Golgatha, and Jesus's crying "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It ends with Jesus giving up the ghost. The eighth motet is a setting of verses from the Stabat mater, and the ninth is about Mary Magdalene, expressing her sorrow about Jesus's death. Then the work takes a surprising turn to the Old Testament: the tenth motet is about Abraham, who has been asked by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The motet ends halfway the story as it is told in the book Genesis: Abraham takes the sword, ready to kill his son. This episode has always been considered a reference to Jesus, taking the role of Isaac and actually being sacrificed, whereas Isaac's life was saved.

It is easy to hear in this work the traces of the Italian style and especially Carissimi's influence. There are even some features of the genre of the oratorio, especially as in the motets which describe episodes of the Passion story, the voices are connected to characters, such as Judas and Peter. The words of these characters are always sung by one voice, whereas the descriptive episodes are for three voices. This lends some of the motets a strong amount of drama. Charpentier has set these texts in the declamatory style favoured in Italy. Listening to these meditations, one understands why Charpentier was so different from nearly all his colleagues.

There was at least one kindred spirit: Sébastien de Brossard. He not only was active as a composer, but he was also an encyclopedist who published the first music dictionary in France. Later encyclopedias, like those by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France and Johann Gottfried Walther in Germany, took his work as a model. His thorough knowledge of all kinds of music was largely based on his own collection. In the 1720s he bequeathed it to the Bibliothèque Royale, now part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It comprised more than 1,000 scores and theoretical works. It is thanks to him that Charpentier's Méditations pour le Carême have been preserved, as his collection of music includes the only copy of this work. It also comprised pieces from other countries, like Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.

He was quite a prolific composer himself, but in our time his oeuvre has received little attention. That is very regrettable, as the few recordings in the catalogue demonstrate, as do the two pieces included here. Salve Rex Christe is a motet for two equal voices - sopranos or tenors - and basso continuo. The text is an adaptation of the Salve Regina, and Brossard's setting has the same amount of expression which is to typical of Salve Regina settings, for instance at the words "ad te clamamus ... ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes". The phrase opening with "eya ergo" has a strong amount of urgency, and here Brossard effectively explores the scoring for two voices.

The influence of the Italian style in this piece cannot be overlooked, and manifests itself even more emphatically in O plenus irarum dies, a motet for a low voice and basso continuo. The printed edition of 1702 includes this explanation: "A description of the Last Judgment. From the hymns of Jean de Santeul, canon regular of the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris. For the Feast of the Dead and any other feast." It comprises eight stanzas; the first says: "O day full of wrath! Day of ultimate fury, when the fate decreed for mortals will stand immutable". The connection with the Dies irae from the Requiem mass is obvious. It is quite a dramatic piece and includes some marked contrasts, for instance in the third stanza. The first line - "The stars will plunge from on high" - is highly dramatic, whereas the next line - "Eternal night will conceal the moon" - is set to long notes. The armosphere created here is continued in the third line - "Light will forsake the sun" - but then the music takes a turn for the dramatic in the last line: "And chaos will confuse all things".

Instrumental pieces of a comparable mood by two of Charpentier's main contemporaries round off this very fine and compelling disc. The three vocal items are hardly known and are of excellent quality. We know about the qualities of Charpentier, but Brossard is the revelation here. It is to be hoped that more of his output will become available on disc. I have nothing but praise for the members of the Ensemble Les Surprises. Paco Garcia (haute-contre), Martin Candela (tenor) and Étienne Bazola (baritone) have the perfect voices for this repertoire, and deal impressively with the technical challenges. What is most important is that the text is clearly intelligible and that the expression comes off to full extent. The contributions by Juliette Guignard (viola da gamba), Étienne Galletier (theorbo) and Bestion de Camboulas (harpsichord and organ) are of the same level.

This is one of the most interesting and musically rewarding discs with music for Passiontide which have been released in recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Les Surprises

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