musica Dei donum

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Te Deum & Motets

Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet

rec: July 2000, Paris, Eglise Notre Dame du Liban
Glossa - GCD 921603 (55'13")

Dixit Dominus (H 202), Domine salvum fac regem (H 291), In honorem Sancti Ludovici Regis Galliae Canticum (H 365), Marches pour les trompettes (H 547); Te Deum (H 146)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of the most distinguished composers in France of the second half of the 17th century. He is mainly known for his sacred music, some of which has been recorded on this CD. All works on it can be associated with the "Sun King", Louis XIV, in one way or another. It was quite usual to thank God for military victories. The text of the Te Deum was pre-eminently suitable for such an occasion. Its content invited to a composition of splendour and brilliance. And without any doubt, the verse "Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth" (Holy is the Lord, God of the armies, Heaven and Earth are filled with your majesty and your glory) will have appealed to the imagination of monarchs, who considered themselves God's representatives on earth, who were ruling in his name. But it wasn't the Te Deum only which played a role in the praise of God and King alike. The Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110) was also inspiring, since it begins with the words: "The Lord said to my Lord: sit down at my right side. And I will make your enemies your footstool. The Lord will extend his power from Zion: he will rule in the midst of your enemies."
Like the planets revolve around the sun, everything in Charpentier's time revolved around the "Sun King". The Te Deum is thought to have been composed at the occasion of the victory of the Marshall of Luxemburg at Steinkerque in 1692. It even can be specifically associated to Louis XIV. In the booklet Jean-Yves Patte writes "The prelude of Charpentier's Te Deum is in D major. The alchemical and heraldic correspondence assigns the colour of fire to that tonality, fire being the double element of destruction and benevolent warmth, while its planetary correspondence is the sun." I would like to add that the German theorist Mattheson links this tonality to the conduct of war. How appropriate! The motet Salvum fac regem is a prayer to God to protect the king, and the preceding work, In honorem Sancti Ludovici regis Galliae canticum was written for the feast of Saint Louis on August 25.

In this recording two things stand out. First of all, the small number of players involved: the instrumental parts are all played by one player. I find this very strange. It is difficult to imagine that a work like the Te Deum, related to a military victory, would have been intended to be performed by such a small band of players. One expects more "pomp and circumstance" in a context like that. But this practice also results in an unsatisfying balance between the "orchestra" and the singers. If one decides to play one-to-a-part, then why aren't the vocal parts performed the same way?
Secondly, the tempi in the Te Deum are very fast. That sounds quite exciting, at least on first hearing, but is it in line with the character of the work? In a work associated directly with the "Sun King" one expects a more majestical performance than Le Concert Spirituel is giving.
Generally speaking this recording is somewhat superficial. In his recording of the Te Deum, William Christie, with his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, has made much more of this work. His recording is far richer in contrast, for instance within "Te aeternum Patrem". I believe that on the long term his recording is more satisfying than Hervé Niquet's. This new recording has one advantage, though: the lower pitch, which is historically more correct. Niquet also has better tenors and haute-contres, whereas Christie on top as far as the sopranos are concerned.
The interpretation of the other works on this CD is more convincing, although some sopranos think they are singing in the opera. In regard to these works I would like to recommend this recording. But as far as the Te Deum is concerned, William Christie has still the upper hand.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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