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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Leçons de Ténèbres

Monique Zanettia, Françoise Massetb, soprano; Jonathan Dunford, viola da gambac; James Holland, theorbod; Mathieu Dupouy, organe

rec: Sept 24 - 26, 2012, Rozay-en-Brie, Église Notre-Dame
Label-Herisson - LH09 (© 2013) (56'17")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list
Scores Leçons de Ténèbres

André CAMPRA (1660-1744): Cantate Domino, petit motet à 2 voix et bcabcde [2]; François COUPERIN: Messe pour les convents (Duo sur les tierces; Récit de cromhorne; Trio a 2 dessus de cromhorne et la basse de tierce)e [1]; Première Leçon, à une voixacde; Seconde Leçon, à une voixbcde; Troisième Leçon, à deux voixabcde

Sources: [1] François Couperin, Pieces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes, 1690; [2] André Campra, Motets, livre second, 1699

Numerous composers of the renaissance and the 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".

Many French composers wrote Leçons; one of the most prolific was Marc-Antoine Charpentier who created various complete sets. It seems that François Couperin had the intention of writing a complete set as well, meaning three lessons for each of the three days. 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 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.

One may wonder why another recording has been made. One of the reasons seems to be the use of a pretty unique historical organ from the 17th century. It is one of the very few French organs of that time which has remained virtually unscathed. It is used here in some extracts from one of Couperin's organ masses, but also in the basso continuo in the vocal items. The pitch is a=396Hz, the tuning 1/5 comma meantone. The singers and the instruments - theorbo and bass viol - are placed in the organ loft. As interesting as this practice is, the use of a large organ is not necessarily more 'authentic' than the use of a small organ or even a harpsichord. In his foreword Couperin states: "If a bass viol or violin can be added to the organ or harpsichord accompaniment, so much the better". Therefore the use of a large organ is just one of the options. The same goes for the scoring with two sopranos. "Although the vocal part is written in the treble clef, all other voices can sing them, especially since most accompanists today know how to transpose". It would be nice if these pieces would be recorded with different voices. That would make more sense than to record them with sopranos for the umpteenth time.

The impact of the use of the organ of Rozay-en-Brie is limited. According to Mathieu Dupouy the tuning "enhances the dissonance of Couperin's language and softens its tonic chords". Unfortunately some of these effects are nullified by the frequent and often quite large vibrato of the singers. The Hebrew letters which precede each lesson and which are a kind of vocalise, are sung almost without any. Therefore its application in the verses must be deliberate, but I can't figure out why the performers think it is needed. It also damages the delivery, and in the third lesson it undermines the blending of the voices. Even so, there is certainly no lack of expression in these performances. That could perfectly have been achieved with less vibrato, and also with some faster tempi. In comparison with other recordings the tempi here are pretty slow.

The last piece of this disc is a setting of Psalm 149 by André Campra. It is used here as a celebration of the resurrection of Christ: "Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints". It is from Campra's second book of petits motets, another particularly popular genre of sacred music in the early 18th century. No fewer than five books of such pieces from Campra's pen were printed between 1695 and 1720, and these were reprinted several times until 1735. They were usually written for one to three solo voices and basso continuo, sometimes with additional treble instruments, called symphonie. Campra's motets became increasingly expressive, under the influence of the Italian style. Cantate Domino is a good example, reflecting the composer's skills in effectively translating a text into music. This quality is not lost on the two sopranos, but unfortunately their vibrato is even heavier than in Couperin.

If you don't care about this, you probably will greatly enjoy these performances. If you adhere to a performance which is stylistically closer to the time the music was written you should look elsewhere.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Françoise Masset
Monique Zanetti
Jonathan Dunford
James Holland
Mathieu Dupouy

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