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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Musique pour la famille De Guise"

Ensemble vocal de l'Abbaye aux Dames de Saintes, Les Menus Plaisirs
Dir: Michel Laplénie

rec: May 8 - 11, 2002
Et'cetera - KTC 1310 (© 2006) (62'55")

Beatus vir (H 221); De profundis (H 156); Le Reniement de Saint Pierre (H 424); Méditations pour le Carème: Desolatione desolata est terra (No 1) (H 380); Tristis est anima mea (No 3) (H 382); Messe pour les trépassés (H 2): Kyrie; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Pie Jesu (H 234); Motet pour les trépassés (H 311); Salve Regina (H 24)

"Media vita in morte sumus" is the first line of a medieval hymn, which – in several varieties – is still sung in our time, and which – in Latin or in a translation – has been set to music by several composers throughout history. "In the midst of life, we are in death"- the aristocratic family De Guise knew all about that. In the early 1670's Marc-Antoine Charpentier had entered the family's service, and it was he who had to compose the music for the funerals which the family had to attend between 1671 and 1675. Louis-Joseph, the Duke of Guise, died in August 1671, followed in May 1672 by his mother-in-law, the Duchess of Orléans. And in 1675 the last male descendant of the line, François-Joseph, Duke of Orléans, died at the premature age of five. The first three items on the programme of this recording belong to the music Charpentier wrote for these funerals.

The Messe pour les trépassés is written for double choir and instruments as is the Motet pour les trépassés, which is a Plainte des âmes du purgatoire (lament of the souls in the Purgatory). Both pieces show the influence of Giacomo Carissimi, with whom Charpentier studied in Rome before entering the service of the De Guise family. In comparison the psalm setting De profundis is much simpler and makes use of the tecnique of faux bourdon.

The rest of the programme consists of pieces which were not written for the De Guise family, in contrast to what the title of the disc suggests. The last work is an oratorio which has been preserved by the French composer Sébastien de Brossard, who greatly admired both Charpentier and the Italian style. It is another testimony of Cavalli's influence on Charpentier's compositional style. The subject is Peter's denial of Jesus, and ends with a sequence of dissonances on the phrase: "flevit amare" (he wept bitterly).

Also for Passiontide are the Méditations pour le Carême, a series of 10 short motets for 3 voices and b.c.. Some of the texts belong to the best-known for this time of the year, like Stabat mater, Tenebrae factae sunt or Tristis est anima mea which is performed here.
In addition a setting of Psalm 111 (112), Beatus vir is performed, which dates from the early 1690's, as well as a setting for three choirs of the traditional liturgical text Salve Regina. In this latter work it is in particular the closing phrase "O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria", which marks Charpentier's expressive power.

Although most works on this programme have been recorded before this could have been an interesting release if the performance and production had been better.
To begin with the general sloppiness of the production is embarrassing, in particular for a record company which has a tradition of good standards. The lyrics have not been printed, which is simply inacceptable, in particular when lesser-known texts are used. There is no reference to the fact that the Messe pour les trépassés is not performed completely. But the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei recorded here are only parts of the mass. In between the Sanctus and Benedictus the elevation motet Pie Jesu is sung, which is not mentioned in the tracklist. In the programme notes Catherine Cessac writes about three of the Méditations pour le Carême, including the 7th – but that isn't performed here … The number in Hitchcock's catalogue of the setting of De profundis is also omitted.

Unfortunately this sloppiness in the production is reflected in the sloppiness of the performance. Although we are left in the dark as to how many singers and players are involved, the choir is definitely too large, and that has a negative effect on the interpretation. Some singers are using too much vibrato which creates a heavy and rather thick sound, and as a result some harmonic progressions are not allowed to have their full effect.
The Méditations pour le Carême are set for three voices – haute-contre, tenor, bass – and bc. There is no reason whatsoever to let some passages be sung by the choir. Several pieces, like the oratorio Reniement de St Pierre and the Motet pour les trépassés, contain passages for solo voices. These are sung by members of the choir – who are not mentioned in the booklet. Some do their job rather well, others simply don’t have what it takes to sing these passages well. The haute-contre in the motet, for instance, has serious problems with the top of his register. The two sopranos in the third section of this motet use quite a lot of vibrato, and the result is awful.

In general the tempi are too slow, and the singing and playing is heavy and stiff. There is a lack of subtlety, and the phrase "O clemens etc" in the Salve Regina is performed at a ridiculously slow tempo and with exaggerated emphasis as if the performers want to make sure the listener isn't going to miss Charpentier's harmonic boldness here. In fact this way the impact is farr less than if it had been performed at a more natural tempo.
And – not to mention more – when in regard to the oratorio the programme notes state that "the recitative style is much employed for the soloists as well as for the choral passages." I'd like to hear that. But I don't: the singing is very far away from what one would associate with a "recitative style".

Not that it really matters but the recording technique is anything but perfect. The acoustics are too reverberant and the balance within the ensemble is often off the mark: in particular the sound of the harpsichord is far too dominant.
In short, this production is a waste of time and money.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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