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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): "L'Apothéose de Lully - Leçons de ténèbres à une et à deux voix"

Katherine Watson, Anna Dennis, sopranob; Stéphane Degout, speakera
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: March 16 -17, 2013b & Jan 23, 2014a, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Hyperion - CDA68093 (© 2017) (70'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

L'Apothéose de Lullya; Leçons de ténèbresb

Sophie Gent, Bojan Cicic, violina; Jonathan Mansona, Anne-Marie Laslab, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichorda, organb

Numerous composers of the renaissance and baroque periods have contributed in one way or another to the celebrations of Holy Week. They composed Passions, responsories or settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The latter were performed during the last three days before Easter. 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.

Interest in performances of Leçons de Ténèbres, which took place in churches and in convents, was such that they turned from liturgical into commercial events. That was partly due to the fact that opera performances were forbidden during Lent. For opera lovers the Leçons de Ténèbres were a substitute for opera. As opera singers were without employment during Lent, they sometimes participated in performances of Leçons de Ténèbres. Some churches even charged for seats. A contemporary writer stated that "the convents of the Théatins and the Feuillants, as well as the Abbey of Longchamp turned their church into an opera house".

A complete set of Lamentations comprises nine lessons, three for each day. It seems that François Couperin had the intention of writing a complete set as well. In the foreword of the publication of the first three lamentations, to be sung on Wednesday, he wrote: "I composed some years ago three Tenebrae Lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the Lady Nuns of Lxx [Longchamp] where they were sung with great success. I decided a few months ago to compose those for Wednesday and Thursday. However, I am giving you here only the three for the first day, since I do not have enough time before Lent to have the other six printed." From that we may conclude that he definitely composed a set for Friday; this has never been found. As he says that he didn't have the time to have the other settings printed, this at least suggests that he had already written a set for Thursday as well. However, so far this hasn't turned up either. That leaves the three lamentations for Wednesday which were printed and which are frequently performed and recorded in our time.

Unfortunately over the years I have encountered very few recordings that are really satisfying. It is mostly the style of singing which I have problems with, especially the often abundant use of vibrato. For many years the recording of Judith Nelson and Emma Kirkby has been my favourite. However, it has two shortcomings. The first is that the performance is a bit too restrained; these pieces are more emotional and expressive than comes off in that recording. The second is the Italian pronunciation of Latin, which is unhistorical. In our time performers adopt the historically correct French pronunciation. That is the case here as well. When I saw the names of the singers I was already sceptical about the outcome. Recently I reviewed the disc 'Sons of England' by Le Poème Harmonique, in which Katherine Watson is one of the soloists, and I didn't like her contributions very much. It is rather odd that she avoids all vibrato on the word "gementes" (sigh) in the Daleth section of the Première Leçon, apparently to create a specific effect. In the baroque era it was just the other way around: it was vibrato that was used for 'special effects', or, more correctly, the expression of affetti. I have heard quite good things from Anna Dennis, but here both sopranos use too much vibrato. Fortunately it is not very wide, but it is undesirable, both from a historical and a strictly musical viewpoint. It disturbs the harmonic peculiarities in these pieces. The most striking example is the end of the first section (Jod) from the Troisième Leçon; here the effect of the harmonic tension between the two voices is largely nullified because of a lack of focus. Nelson and Kirkby have a much stronger impact in this passage. The same is the case with another recording which I found some years ago and which comes close to an ideal interpretation: Catherine Greuillet and Isabelle Desrochers with Philippe Foulon (viola da gamba) and Olivier Vernet (organ) (Ligia, 1999). Vernet plays a large organ, which seems a little questionable as it is unlikely that these pieces were performed in large spaces. But vocally that performance is superior to what we get here.

That is not to say that this is a bad performance. There is certainly much to enjoy, if one is a little tolerant in regard to vibrato. I have certainly heard much worse performances, and the two sopranos have certainly nice voices. Katherine Watson is more convincing here than in 'Sons of England'. However, this recording once again shows that too many performers are not willing to obey to the performing habits of the baroque era. And that is pretty sad.

The combination of the Leçons de ténèbres with one of the Apothéoses is rather uncommon. In fact, L'Apothéose de Lully is the main work on this disc, and also the first in the track-list. The reason I started my review with the Leçons de ténèbres is that it is published at the beginning of Lent, the period of forty days preceding Easter. There is no connection between them and the Apothéoses whatsoever. From that angle I am not very happy with this combination. The two Apothéoses are mostly played together; both are programmatic in two senses of the word. One the one hand they tell a story; in L'Apothéose de Lully it is about the meeting of Corelli and Lully in the Elysian fields. On the other hand these works bear witness to Couperin's ideal: the mixture of the French and the Italian style, known as the goûts réunis.

In L'Apothéose de Lully the two styles are exposed and come to a compromise in the Sonade en trio which closes the work. As Graham Sadler explains in his liner-notes, some contrasts between the two styles can not be heard and only be seen, especially in the use of different clefs. He does not touch the issue of the instrumentation. In his instrumental works Couperin mostly leaves this to the performers. Jonathan Cohen has opted for the most basic line-up: two violins and basso continuo. That is certainly a legitimate option. However, as one of the movements specifically refers to flutes and violins as alternatives, a more varied line-up may be more appropriate. Musica ad Rhenum (Brilliant Classics, 2004), which delivers a more dramatic and extroverted interpretation, uses transverse flutes and oboes; the former are also part of the Ricercar Consort, whose interpretation is more restrained and not fundamentally different from that of Arcangelo. It is probably a matter of taste, which instrumental line-up one prefers. As far as the quality of the performance is concerned, there is little to choose between the two. You certainly won't go wrong with Arcangelo. That cannot be said of the performance of the Leçons de ténèbres, and that makes it impossible to unequivocally recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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Katherine Watson

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