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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Pastorale de Noël"

Ensemble Correspondances
Dir: Sébastien Daucé

rec: Jan 2 - 6, 2016, Grenoble, MC2
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902247 (© 2016) (81'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/(F)
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Or nous dites Marie (ed. Ballard); Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Grande Antienne O de l'Avent (H 36-43); Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1st version, H 483; 2nd version, H 483a; 3rd version, H 483b)

Caroline Dangin Bardot, Violaine Le Chenadec, Caroline Weynants, dessus; Lucile Richardot, bas-dessus; Stephen Collardelle, haute-contre; Davy Cornillot, taille; Etienna Bazola, basse-taille; Renaud Bres, Nicolas Brooymans, basse
Julien Martin, Matthieu Bertaud, recorder; Béatrice Linon, Alice Julien-Laferriere, violin; Mathilde Vialle, viola da gamba; Julien Hainsworth, basse de violon; Diego Salamanca, lute; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Arnaud De Pasquale, harpsichord; Sébastien Daucé, organ

If we exaggerate a little, the life of Marc-Antoine Charpentier had something of the dramas he probably would have liked to compose, if he had been given the chance. But the operatic scene was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who wanted to make sure that no Italian influences disturbed the development of a purely French style. Charpentier had been in Rome for some years and that discredited him as a true French composer. He created just one opera, Médée, generally considered one of the masterworks of 17th-century French music.

His Italian affiliations also prevented him from taking a major position in French musical life, for instance at the court of Louis XIV. For about twenty years he was in the service of the family De Guise, which had lived for some time in Italy and loved Italian music. For the Hôtel de Guise, as the Maison de Guise was known, he composed a large amount of music, among them the Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, which is the main work in this recording of the Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé.

The pastorale was a popular genre in the second half of the 17th century. Charpentier composed at least five such pieces; the best-known is Actéon. Originally it was a secular genre. In 1672 Charpentier composed the pastorale Eglogue en Musique et en Danse as a prologue to Molière's play Le Malade imaginaire. But the features of such a piece were well suited to the subject of the shepherds who are chosen by God to be the first to hear about the birth of Jesus. The Pastorale is in two parts and it is likely that in between a sermon was held. In the first part several protagonists - a shepherdess, an old shepherd - express the misery of everyday life as a consequence of mankind having fallen into sin. The old shepherd expresses his expectation of salvation coming soon and this is followed by an angel announcing the birth of Jesus. "The Word, author of all things, comes here to be born. Let all be silent in his presence". Here Charpentier requires "une grande silence". It is followed by a lively dialogue between the old shepherd and the angel; the latter is supported by a host of angels who end the first part with a song of praise: "Glory in the highest".

The second part begins with a shepherdess warning the shepherds of the danger of wolves. They have already taken some of her sheep. "Alas, am I not thousand upon thousand times unhappy?" But she is answered by the other shepherds: "Happy thousand upon thousand times". They urge each other to "banish all sorrows"; the loss of sheep is more than made up for by the birth of the Saviour. The piece goes on with the shepherds expressing their joy about the fact of Jesus' birth and its effects on mankind.

This Pastorale dates from 1684. In the next two years Charpentier adapted it: he replaced the second part by new lyrics and music. Both versions are recorded here which allows the listener to hear every version complete. In the second version of 1685 the second part is about the fact of the birth of Jesus. The old shepherd we met in the first part presents the new-born child to the shepherds. The contrast between the divine status of baby Jesus and the rather poor surroundings are emphasized. Charpentier includes elements of folk music here. It ends with a chorus in praise of the Virgin Mary. The third version of 1686 is shorter and here it is the Sun which is used as a symbol of the birth of Jesus. The sun, which rises in the morning, has limited powers as elsewhere it is night. In contrast the Lord is "surrounded by radiance" and is "ever bright, ever new and everlasting beyond all eternity". A chorus of shepherds about the "source of light and grace" closes this version.

This Pastorale is a mixture of solos and tutti, often in quick succession. Some passages are first sung by a solo voice and then repeated by the tutti. There are fine solos by some of the members of the ensemble, in particular the sopranos Caroline Weynants and Violaine Le Chenadec, the baritone Etienne Bazola and the bass Renaud Bres. Notable is the important role of the instruments: two recorders and two violins.

In between the first version of the Pastorale and the two next versions we hear a different kind of music, written for the liturgy. The Grandes Antiennes O de l'Avent - or Salut de la veille des O et les 7 O suivant le romain as they are officially called - date from the 1690s when Charpentier worked as maître de musique of the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St Louis. These seven O antiphons, as they are often called, root in a long tradition which goes back to the 8th century. On each of the seven days before Christmas one of these antiphons was sung at the Vespers Magnificat. They appeal for the coming of the Saviour who is given the names which refer to his qualities: wisdom (sapientia), Lord (Adonai), root of Jesse (radix Jesse), key of David (clavis David), dawn (oriens), King of the nations (Rex gentium) and 'God with us' (Emmanuel). They are preceded by O salutaris hostia, sung on 16 December; the text is by St Thomas of Aquinas. The O Antiphons are set for one to four voices and basso continuo; in three of them these are joined by instruments. The antiphons are divided into two sections; the second begins with the word "veni" (come) and here Charpentier often changes the metre to underline the urgency of the appeal. In this recording one of Charpentier's Noëls sur les instruments is inserted This folk song, Or nous dites Marie, returns at the end of the O antiphons, in a four-part vocal version which was printed by the Paris publisher Ballard. That is an especially nice addition as this song's melody is very well-known but its text is seldom sung. This piece shows that simple music can be very beautiful and moving.

It is given an excellent performance by the ensemble and that goes for the entire recording. I already mentioned some of the soloists from the ensemble. In the O antiphons we also hear the beautiful voice of hautecontre Stephen Collardelle; he plays a major role here, which probably can be explained from the fact that Charpentier was an hautecontre himself. The ensembles and choruses are just as good as the solos. This ensemble is one of the best around, especially in regard to the performance of French music of the 17th century. It is disappointing, though, that it apparently is not willing to adopt a historical pronunciation of French. It is rather inconsistent, in particular as it uses a historical - French - pronunciation of Latin.

That said, this disc is one of the best with French music for Christmastide. It is a major acquaintance for every CD collection and a disc you very likely will return to every year at Christmastide.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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