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Michel LAMBERT (c1610 - 1696): Leçons de Ténèbres (1662/63)

Marc Mauillon, baritone; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Marouan Mankar-Bennis, harpsichord, organ

rec: May 11 - 15, 2017, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, La Courroie
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902363.64 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.44'30")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Michel LAMBERT: Leçons de Ténèbres (1662/63)
anon (Nicolas Hotman?): Prélude non mesuré pour viole seule; Ennemond GAULTIER (1575?-1651): Tombeau de Mezangeau; Nicolas HOTMAN (c1613-1663): Allemande; Courante

The name of Michel Lambert is inextricably connected with the main genre of secular vocal music in 17th-century France, the air sérieux. So much so, that in the - rather short - article on Lambert in New Grove, only this part of his oeuvre is mentioned. It is completely ignored that he also composed two sets of Leçons de Ténèbres, written for performance during Holy Week at the court of Louis XIV.

For many centuries Holy Week had a special place in the liturgical year of the Christian Church of the West. This resulted in a large corpus of music which was to be performed on the various days of that week. An important part of the repertoire is music for the Offices of Tenebrae, services which were celebrated on the evening before or the early morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. France is one of the countries where these services were held in high esteem, and that is reflected by the music written for them. With the growing popularity of this kind of music the performances were moved from the night to the evening before the respective day. That was also the case in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, for instance, were performed on Wednesday.

Several of France's main composers contributed to the genre. The three Leçons de Ténèbres by François Couperin are by far the best-known and most frequently-performed. His contemporary Michel-Richard de Lalande also contributed to the genre, and so did the main representative of the previous generation, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He composed several sets of Leçons de Ténèbres, of which only a few are really well-known. In his settings of these texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, he was inspired by Lambert, who was not only a famous composer of airs sérieux, but also a fine singer and an influential singing teacher. Not unimportantly, he was the father-in-law of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who laid the foundation of a typically French opera. Lully, by the way, himself never wrote Leçons de Ténèbres.

His father-in-law composed two sets. The second of them is from 1689 and was recorded for the first time by singers and instrumentalists under the direction of Ivete Piveteau (Virgin Classics, 1989). It seems to be the only recording available to date, which is a shame, as the performances are rather disappointing. The twofer which is the subject of this review includes the first set, which is not even mentioned in the work-list in New Grove. It dates from 1662/63, and is - like the second set - scored for solo voice and basso continuo.

It is no surprise that this set has never been recorded before, and apparently not even performed. In the booklet, Marc Mauillon and his colleagues write: "[From] the first working session, we understood why. It took a good three hours just to read the first Leçon - for about ten minutes worth of music! Indeed, the vocal line, abundantly ornamented with Gregorian 'plain-chant', is not rhythmically rigorously organised in relation to the basso continuo line. We therefore had to put in place both parts, melodic and harmonic, with a very careful and well thought out approach".

The reference to ornamentation is of great importance here, because that is one of the features of these Leçons de Ténèbres. The foundation of these pieces is Gregorian chant, as Catherine Massip explains: "The structure of the Leçons imitates that of Gregorian melody, that is to say a melodic sequence corresponding to each verse which comes back about fifteen times for each Leçon." With this as a starting point Lambert takes the freedom to adapt the music to the text, for instance with regard to the placing of melismas, the length of notes and the musical discourse.

In these Leçons two important influences mingle: on the one hand the style of singing which was dominant in the performance of airs sérieux, of which Lambert was a supreme master, and on the other hand the contemporary way of singing in church. Thomas Leconte, of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, points out that at the time plainchant was not performed as it was written down, but in a highly ornamented manner, according to things like local habits and the skills of the cantors. The result was "a real plasticity in the performance of ecclesiastical song". "Gregorian notation itself left certain parameters relatively indeterminate, and merely constituted a base upon which cantors could modulate the rhythmic flow, highlight the different stress patterns, but also embellish the melodic scheme by using ornamentation and improvisation techniques which ofted dated back to the Middle Ages". Leconte refers to a manual of song ornamentation, which was published in 1666 by Jean Millet, sur-chantre of the two principal churches of the metropolitan chapter of Besançon. Interestingly, in 1661 Robert Ballard published a collection of chants to be used in Jesuit services, which includes ornamented versions of the Leçons de Ténèbres.

Taking this into account, these settings by Lambert have to be considered of great historical importance. They not only show that there was no watershed between liturgical and secular music, but it is also the first collection of Leçons de Ténèbres in France, scored for solo voice and basso continuo. It stands at the beginning of a long and impressive tradition. The bass line is abundantly figured, and this can be explained by the fact that Lambert sang these pieces, accompanying himself on the theorbo.

This has also been taken by Marc Mauillon as a justification for the performance of these Leçons by a single voice. "According to witnesses at the time, we know that these Leçons by Michel Lambert were performed by three [female] singers during the Tenebrae services but we chose the option in this recording of providing a version for male voice, to take into account that the composer himself must have sung these pieces - the score, even if we know that it is not autographed, leads us to believe that it is more of an 'aide-mémoire' rather than a ready to be performed version - and that he sang his own court airs, even though they were written for soprano". This leaves room for another recording, with female voices rather than Mauillon's baritone.

Not that we should regret his decision to perform all of these Leçons himself. Far from it. I have heard and admired Mauillon in earlier repertoire, either medieval music or pieces in the monodic style which came in vogue in Italy in the early 17th century. What those styles have in common is a focus on the text, and that is exactly one of the features of his interpretations of Lambert's Leçons. Because of his declamatory style of singing, the text comes off to full effect. His skills in the ornamentation department are highly impressive. He carefully doses the dynamic shading in correspondence to the content of every verse. The basso continuo is given an excellent interpretation as well, and the variety in the line-up of the bass section creates variety and also fits the nature of the various Leçons.

The performers have put a lot of energy in this project, which clearly was a labour of love. Their efforts are fully justified. This set has to be ranked among the most important contributions to the repertoire for Holy Week of recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Marc Mauillon

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