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Michel-Richard DE LALANDE (1657 - 1726): Leçons de Ténèbres

Sophie Karthäuser, sopranoa
Ensemble Correspondances
Dir: Sébastien Daucé

rec: July 2014, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, La Courroie
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902206 (© 2015) (76'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] plainchant: O mors ero mors tua, antiphona [1]; Michel-Richard DE LALANDE: Miserere mei Deus (S 87)a [2]; plainchant: Tristis est anima mea, responsorium [1]; Michel-Richard DE LALANDE: 3e Leçon du Mercredy Saint (S 118)a [2]; plainchant: Ecce vidimus eum, responsorium [1]; Michel-Richard DE LALANDE: 3e Leçon du Jeudi Saint (S 121)a [2]; plainchant: Vinea mea electa, responsorium [1]; Michel-Richard DE LALANDE: 3e Leçon du Vendredi Saint (S 124)a [2]; plainchant: Plange quasi virgo, responsorium [1]

Sources: [1] plainchant, L'Office de la Semaine sainte en latin et en français selon le missel et le bréviaire de Rome et de Paris ..., 1698; [2] Lalande, Les III Leçons de Tenebres et le Miserere, 1730

Anne-Emmanuelle Davy, Marie-Frédérique Girod, Amandine Trenc, Caroline Dangin-Bardot, Judith Fa, Maud Gnidzaz, dessus; Lucile Richardot, Marie Pouchelon, Stéphanie Leclerc, bas-dessus
Mathilde Vialle, Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Diego Salamanca, lute; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Arnaud de Pasquale, harpsichord; Sébastien Daucé, organ

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 this was 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 (sacrum triduum), 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, for instance pour le Mercredy Saint or du Mercredy Saint. 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 Lent. 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 best-known and most frequently performed and recorded Leçons de Ténèbres are those by François Couperin. The present disc includes the three extant settings by Michel-Richard de Lalande, one of the most prominent composers of his time and a favourite of Louis XIV who especially admired his grands motets. It is a token of the high esteem in which he was held and the admiration his works earned that between 1729 and 1734 his oeuvre was published in 21 volumes. Part of this edition were also the Leçons de Ténèbres and the Miserere (1730).

There is something mysterious about this set of pieces. The print of 1730 includes only the last lesson for each of the three days. However, André Danican Philidor, royal music librarian from 1684 until his death, refers to nine leçons for solo voice and bc and a Miserere for solo voice, violin and bc which he had copied. If these are the same leçons as those which are included in the 1730 edition, then why there are only three? In his liner-notes Thomas Leconte suggests that this may be explained from the fact that Lalande intended to revise his works before publication, and that the extant leçons were the only three he was able to revise before his death.

It is impossible to establish when the Leçons de Ténèbres were composed. The Miserere is known from a copy by Sébastien de Brossard from 1711. That is the year Lalande's two daughters died. It is known that they, together with their mother, gave public performances of the Leçons. Interestingly it includes the plainchant verses - those which Lalande did not set - in a faux-bourdon harmonization by Brossard; these are included in the present recording.

In comparison with Couperin's better-known settings Lalande's are more dramatic and have even theatrical traits. They bear witness to the Italian influences in his oeuvre and his talent as a composer of music for the stage. Italian elements are the use of dacapo, recitative-like passages, changes in rhythm and a vivid continuo part. An example of the dramatic character of these Leçons is that in the 3e Leçon du Vendredi Saint the first phrase - after the introduction (Incipit Oratio Jeremiae Prophetae) - is repeated two times: "Recordare, Domino, quid acciderit nobis" - Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us. This creates a strongly dramatic effect. Another example is the way Lalande has set the closing phrase of the Lamed from the 3e Leçon du Mercredi Saint: "(my sorrow) wherewith the Lord hath inflicted me in the day of his fierce anger". This section opens with the well-known phrase "O vos omnes" (the text of one of the responsories for Holy Week): "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?" Then follows "attendite" - behold, and this is followed here by a dramatic pause. An example of eloquent text illustration is the third Beth from the 3e Leçon du Jeudi Saint, In tenebrosis: "He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old". Here the voice moves in the lower part of its register. The Miserere also includes various examples of text expression. Here Lalande underpins the dramatic elements by grouping some verses in pairs, deriving from the conventional alternatim practice in which even and odd verses are strictly separated.

Philidor reports that these pieces were "written for the Dames de l'Assomption (Ladies of the Assumption) and sung by Mesdelles de La Lande to the admiration of all Paris". The Dames de l'Assomption designates the Augustinian nuns of a convent founded in 1622 and located near the Tuileries, on rue Saint-Honoré. Like several Parisian convents, the Couvent de l'Assomption was renowned for the musical quality of its services (booklet). This could well have inspired Sébastien Daucé to include liturgical chant. The programme opens with the antiphon O mors ero mors tua. The Miserere and the three Leçons are each followed by the respective responsories connected to them. These are taken from a source from Lalande's time, published in 1698.

That makes this disc an interesting and meaningful addition to the catalogue in which these pieces are represented in recordings by, for instance, Le Poème Harmonique. I probably prefer its soprano Claire Lefilliâtre but Sophie Karthäuser delivers an impressive interpretation in which the dramatic and expressive elements are conveyed very well. Now and then she uses a little too much vibrato but that is hardly disturbing. This disc gives a good impression of how Lalande's Miserere and Leçons de Ténèbres may have been performed in his own time.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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