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CD reviews

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Histoires Sacrées"

Ensemble Correspondances
Dir: Sébastien Daucé

rec: Oct & Dec 2016, Grenoble, MC2 & Amiens, Maisons de la Culture [CDs]; Dec 2016 (live), Château de Versailles (Chapelle Royale) [DVD]
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902280.81 (2 CDs, DVD) (© 2019) (2.40'51" [CDs], 1.38'21" [DVD])
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[CDs] Caecilia, virgo et martyr 8 vocibus (H 397); Dialogus inter Christum et homines (H 417); Dialogus inter Christum et peccatores (H 425/425a); Dialogus inter Magdalenam et Jesum 2 vocibus Canto e Alto cum organo (H 423); Élévation (H 408); Judith, sive Bethulia liberata (H 391); Mors Saülis et Jonathae (H 403); Motet pour les trépassés a 8 (H 311); Pestis Mediolanensis (H 398/398a)
[DVD] Caecilia, virgo et martyr 8 vocibus (H 397); In odorem unguentorum (H 51); Judith, sive Bethulia liberata (H 391); Magdalena lugens (H 343); O sacramentum pietatis (H 274); Sub tuum praesidium (H 28)

Caroline Arnaud, Caroline Dangin-Bardot, Judith Fa, Violaine Le Chenadec, Caroline Weynants, dessus; Lucile Richardot, bas-dessus; Stephen Collardelle, David Tricou, haute-contre; Davy Cornillot, Constantin Goubet, taille; Étienne Bazola, René Ramos Premier, basse-taille; Renaud Bres, Nicolas Brooymans, basse
Lucile Perret, Matthieu Bertaud, recorder; Béatrice Linon, Josèphe Cottet, Alice Julien-Laferrière, Sandrine Dupé, Simon Pierre,violin; Mathilde Vialle, Myriam Rignol, Lucile Boulanger, Étienne Floutier, viola da gamba; Antoine Touche, Julien Hainsworth, bass violin; Thibaut Roussel, Diego Salamanca, theorbo; Arnaud de Pasquale, Jean-Luc Ho, harpsichord; Pierre Gallon, Sébastien Daucé, harpsichord, organ

Music life in France in the second half of the 17th century was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully. He, of Italian birth, was taken on with the specific task of creating a purely French style, especially in the field of opera, which could compete with the Italian style, which quickly disseminated across Europe. In order to achieve that, Italian influences were unwelcome. This explains why Marc-Antoine Charpentier never held any position at the court of Louis XIV. He had studied for some years in Rome and his compositions were clearly influenced by the Italian style.

This influence comes especially to the fore in a genre which is generally called oratorio, or histoire sacrée in French. Charpentier himself used various terms to describe these compositions, such as historia, canticum, dialogus or just motet. They strongly vary in subject, length and character, but they are all unmistakably influenced by the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi. It is not documented that the latter was Charpentier's formal teacher during his three years in Rome, but he must have heard and absorbed Carissimi's oratorios, which were generally considered exemplary. Charpentier composed about 35 pieces in this genre; at least five of them were written for the musical establishment of Marie de Lorraine.

The present production includes three large-scale oratorios and a handful of smaller pieces, which one would not consider oratorios, but are closely connected to it because of the dialogues between different characters or groups of people.

Caecilia martyr et virgo is about the famous antique story of Cecilia who doesn't want to give up her Christian faith and is condemned to death by the Roman governor Almachius. The oratorio is in two parts, both preceded by a prelude. In the first part we hear a dialogue between Cecilia, her lover Valerianus and the latter's brother Tiburtius. The second part circles around the confrontation between Cecilia and Almachius. Traditionally Cecilia has been associated with music, but it is not quite clear why. St Cecilia's Day was celebrated on 22 November and especially in England this day was celebrated with music. Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel are two of the composers who wrote Odes for such occasions. However, in Charpentier's oratorio, music does not play any significant role. Oratorios were intended to imprint the message of the Church, and in particular the ideals of the Counter Reformation, into the faithful. In the oratorio it is Cecilia's perseverance in sticking to her faith which is highlighted and is held as an example to follow. There are only two references to music. One is at the end of part one, when the choir sings: "Oh celestial harmony of those who profess faith in Christ, oh delightful concert, oh sweet melody". The other is the closing chorus of the entire work, which includes the lines "Let us rejoice, let us sing, and let us play, with timbrel and choir, with strings and organ, with cymbals, with long trumpets, with well-sounding cymbals, with psaltery and harp, that Cecilia's victory may soar around the world!"

A popular subject among composers of the 17th and 18th centuries was the story of Judith, described in the apocryphal book from the Old Testament that bears her name. The story is about Betulia, a city in Israel which is beleaguered by the Assyrians. Its situation is becoming more precarious by the day, and the inhabitants begin to consider surrender. Then one of them, Judith, announces she has a plan to liberate the city. She leaves Betulia and visits Holofernes, the captain of the Assyrians. She has dinner with him, and when he is drunk she kills him with his own sword and takes his head with her to show it to the people. It is the beginning of the end of the siege of the city. Two famous compositions on this subject are Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha triumphans and Mozart's La Betulia liberata, the latter on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio. Charpentier's Judith sive Bethulia liberata is divided into two parts. In the first we hear choruses in which the opposing camps express their feelings about the situation. Next the story is told, which obviously means that we hear long recitatives by the historicus and the two main characters, Judith and Holofernes. The role of the <>historicus is allocated to various voices or groups of voices, much in the style of Carissimi. The recitativic episodes sometimes turn into arioso-style passages which creates some differentiation within the oratorio as do the various choruses of the Israelites and the Assyrians.

Also quite famous is the story of Saul, Jonathan and David (Mors Saülis et Jonathae). It is based on the last chapter of the first book of Samuel and the first of the second book. It opens with the visit of King Saul to the Witch of Endor. This episode was taken by Henry Purcell as the subject for a very short, but highly dramatic anthem. There is no lack of drama here either, especially in Charpentier's portrayal of the Witch. Then follows the scene that Samuel makes his appearance from the Underworld and tells Saul that he and his son Jonathan will be killed in battle. Saul, seeing that the battle is lost, asks an Amalekite to kill him. He does so and goes to tell David that Saul and Jonathan are dead. David sings his famous lament on the death of the king and of his friend Jonathan. The latter is another dramatic highlight of this piece.

The remaining pieces are relatively short, and one could easily call them motets or just dialogues. A true dialogue - a conversation between two characters - is the Dialogus inter Magdalenam et Jesum, which takes place at Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus's tomb is empty and then meets Jesus, thinking he is the gardiner. It was one of the favourite episodes of the Easter story which composers loved to set to music. By contrast, the Dialogus inter Christum et peccatores is a dialogue between Christ and a group of people, called "sinners". It refers to Jesus' death at the cross: "Be mindful, O sinners, be mindful of what I have done for you. (...) Ah, ungrateful heart, stony heart! Is this the return you make to God?"

This is followed by two pieces connected to the Eucharist. Dialogus inter Christum et homines ends with the line: "O divine bread, O drink that makes mortals immortal". Elévation is a dialogue between Christ and two characters, called Esuriens (The hungry man) and Sitiens (The thirsty man), who ask who will satisfy their needs. Christ invites them to come to Him: "I possess heavenly bread, (...) I possess the fountain of life". He also closes this piece: "Well-beloved guests, eat and drink and make remembrance of my Passion".

The Motet pour les trépassés is ranked among the 'occasional motets' in the list of Charpentier's works. Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes, writes: "Composed between August 1671 and May 1672, a period of mourning for the Guise family after the death of its leader, Louis-Joseph, this piece may once again be connected with the monastery of the Theatines, which enjoyed the patronage of the Guise." It is based on the book of Job, and Charpentier creates a kind of dialogue between souls in the purgatory, begging: "Have pity on me, at least you, my friends, because the hand of the Lord has touched me", and a chorus, praying to God: "Alas, Lord, how long wilt thou not spare me, nor suffer me to swallow down my spittle?"

The last piece is different: Pestis Mediolanensis is about a historical fact, the plague which hit Milan in 1576/77. "The Governor and many members of the nobility fled the city, but the bishop remained, to organize the care of those affected and to minister to the dying. He called together the superiors of all the religious communities in the diocese and won their cooperation. Borromeo tried to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people daily. He used up his own funds and went into debt to provide food for the hungry." (Wikipedia). He was canonised in 1610; his feast day is 4 November. The plague and its effects are vividly depicted by three voices, who conclude: "The mouths of the sick cried out, the breasts of the dying uttered sighs, and there was none to help!" Then the role of Carlo Borromeo, "that great servant of God", is highlighted: "He consoled and encouraged the sick who languished, and washed and kissed their dripping open sores. O great piety!" The piece closes with a chorus: "Let us therefore sing a hymn in honour of the blessed Charles! (...) [His] glowing charity has fixed him in heaven, like the sun, amid the ranks of the blessed."

Some of Charpentier's oratorios and dialogues have been recorded before, but I can't remember having heard them in such outstanding performances. The Ensemble Correspondances has developed into a class of its own, especially with regard to French repertoire of the 17th century. One of the strenghts of the ensemble is that all the voices blend perfectly, which is especially important in these pieces which include many ensembles and in which Charpentier frequently uses harmony for expressive purposes. Listen, for instance, to the chorus 'Heu, heu, nos dolentes' in Caecilia, virgo et martyr. At the same time, all the singers are able to deliver expressive and incisive performances of the solo parts. Judith Fa is excellent as Cecilia in the latter oratorio, and Caroline Weynants is just as convincing as Judith in Judith, sive Bethulia liberata. Étienne Bazola and David Tricou deliver fine performances in the roles of Saul and David respectively in Mors Saülis et Jonathae. In this oratorio Lucile Richardot is a perfect Witch of Endor (Maga). In these large oratorios and in the smaller ones, there are several passages where other singers deliver performances that are just as good. The instrumental ensemble acts at the same level.

The production comes with an additional DVD, which include live and staged performances which have taken place in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. It includes two of the three large oratorios which are also on the CDs: Judith sive Bethulia liberata and Caecilia virgo et martyr. However, there are also four pieces which are not included on the CDs, as indicated in the header. For that reason alone, one may prefer this production to a digital download, which concerns only the recordings on the two CDs. Otherwise, I am not sure whether these staged performances add anything substantial to what is on the CDs.

It is questionable whether the oratorios were meant to be staged. Unfortunately, the liner-notes don't discuss this subject. Moreover, three pieces are not ranked among the dramatic works, but are rather liturgical. O sacramentum pietatis is an elevation motet for a solo voice and instruments; the singer (Lucile Richardot) is given here the name of Magdalena. She returns in Magdalena lugens, but this is an occasional motet, and the score comprises one vocal line; here the text is divided between Lucile Richardot as Magdalena and Caroline Arnaud as narrator. In odorem unguentorum is an antiphon for Vespers at the Feast of the Assumption. The live performance ends with the antiphon Sub tuum praesidium, which is scored for three voices without any accompaniment. These three voices are again given names of characters: Magdalena, Judith and Caecilia - the main characters of the oratorios.

I am not that happy with these live performances. The singing is not as good as in the studio production, and the staging is not historical, which I find hard to understand. This only confirms my view that this adds little to what the CDs have to offer. The DVD includes subtitles in French and English, according to the rear, but I have not been able to turn to the English subtitles. If I select the English subtitles in the menu, I get the French subtitles. I wonder if this is just my copy which has this problem. The markings of the different chapters is not very precise. The booklet omits also In odorem unguentorum in the list of pieces on the DVD; it is between Judith and Magdalena lugens.

All said and done, the main thing is that this production delivers superb performances of some of Charpentier's finest works. The fact that he was not allowed to show his dramatic talent in opera is probably a blessing in disguise after all. Otherwise we may never have seen and heard these exciting sacred pieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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