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"Leçons de Ténèbres"

[I] François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Leçons de Ténèbres
Carolyn Sampson, sopranoa; Marianne Beate Kielland, mezzo-sopranob
The King's Consort
Dir: Robert King
rec: March 5 - 7, 2011, Toddington, St Andrew's Church
Vivat - 102 (© 2013) (78'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list
Score Leçons de Ténèbres

François COUPERIN: Leçons de Ténèbresab; Magnificatab; Motet pour le jour de Pâques (Victoria Christo resurgenti)ab Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Chaconne in A; Tombeau pour Sieur de Ste Colombe; Monsieur DE SAINTE COLOMBE le fils (c1660-1710): Prélude in e minor

Susanne Heinrich, viola da gamba; Lynda Sayce, theorbo; Robert King, organ

[II] "Tenebris - Leçons de ténèbres"
Isabelle Poulenard, sopranoc; Jean-François Lombard, haute-contred
Les Paladins
Dir: Jérôme Corréas
rec: June 28 - July 2, 2011, Noirlac, Abbaye
Cypres - CYP1666 (© 2013) (71'04")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Nicolas BERNIER (1664-1734): Deuxième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saintc; Sébastien DE BROSSARD (1655-1730): Leçons des morts (1e Leçon; 3e Leçon)cd; François COUPERIN (1688-1733): La Visionnaire, Sonate à 3 in c minor; Joseph MICHEL (1688-1738): Troisème Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Jeudi Saintd [1]; Première Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Vendredi Saintcd [1]; Henry DU MONT (1610-1684): Gaillarde in g minor; Pavane à 3 in C; Sinfonia in g minor

[1] Joseph Michel, Recueil de XX leçons de Jérémie à une, deux, et trois voix, 1735

Juliette Roumailhac, Marion Korkmaz, violin; Nicolas Crnjanski, cello; Jérôme Corréas, harpsichord, organ

The Lamentations of Jeremiah - one of the books of the Old Testament - were an important part of the liturgy for Holy Week during the renaissance and baroque periods. They were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah to express the sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. The prophet doesn't hide the fact that these were the effect of the people turning away from God. The Christian Church saw a parallel between the destruction of Jerusalem and the passion and death of Jesus, both the result of a revolt of mankind against God. Therefore the recitation or musical performance of these texts during Holy Week was considered highly appropriate. To each part of the lamentations an appeal for reform was added: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God".

The Lamentations became a part of the Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday, taking place in the early hours of the morning. Originally sung to plainchant, from the 15th century on composers started to set them polyphonically. At the time of Louis XIV they were not sung in the morning but in the evening before: the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday were sung at Wednesday, the next on Thursday and Friday respectively.

The composers usually wrote the Leçons for performance in churches and convents, but soon these performances turned into major events. An additional reason was that they were often sung by singers from the opera which was closed during Lent. The popularity of this kind of performances made some churches even require entrance fees.

The three Leçons by François Couperin belong to the most frequently-performed today. That is remarkable as most of his vocal oeuvre is largely neglected. Only three settings have been preserved. It seems that Couperin had the intention of writing a complete set, 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."

Couperins settings reflect the elegance and restraint which are a feature of French culture under the ancien régime, but are certainly not devoid of expression. These lessons include various quite dramatic passages, especially the Premier Leçon. That is convincingly conveyed in the performances under the direction of Robert King. The voices of Carolyn Sampson and Marianne Beate Kielland are perfectly suited to this repertoire, and blend very well. Unfortunately Ms Sampson now and then relapses to her habit of singing with a pretty big vibrato, especially in the more dramatic episodes. Otherwise she manages to keep it in check. The singers use the French pronunciation of Latin which was common at the time.

The programme is extended by two other vocal items. The motet for Easter, Victoria Christo resurgenti, is an obvious choice. It is a beautiful piece which comes off nicely; its joyful character is well realised. Less convincing, from a programmatic point of view, is the setting of the Magnificat. However, considering the neglect of Couperin's vocal works, one can only welcome this addition, which again shows Couperin's skills in writing for the voice.

In the short instrumental interludes we hear excellent performances by Susanne Heinrich. In particular the Tombeau pour Sieur de Ste Colombe by Marin Marais receives an expressive interpretation. Interesting is the inclusion of a piece by someone only known as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils who lived in Edinburgh for a number of years. It is not known in what way he was related to the more famous Jean (or Sieur) de Sainte-Colombe. It has been suggested that 'le fils' was Jean's son who fled the country, when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. As at around the same time Jean also disappeared from public life some believe this could indicate that the Sainte-Colombes were Protestants.

The second disc includes some Leçons de Ténèbres by composers who are hardly known. That certainly goes for Joseph Michel who was probably born in Dijon where he also died. From 1709 until his death he was canon and maître de musique du roi at the Ste Chapelle in Dijon. His extant oeuvre is small: three grands motets and a set of Leçons de Ténèbres which are quite interesting. Every leçon comes in two or three different versions in order to make them usable for every kind of voice. The twenty settings are for one to three voices and basso continuo. Some include parts for one to three obbligato instruments ad libitum. Every lesson opens with a Hebrew letter set to a long melisma. The text of the lesson is set to short airs and recitatives.

Michel never worked in Paris which is one of the explanations for his obscurity. Nicolas Bernier did work in Paris, but he is also little known. He was from Mantes-la-Jolie, north-west of Paris, and received his first musical education there. He studied with Caldara in Rome which explains the strong Italian influences in his oeuvre. After 1700 he worked in Paris, and in 1704 he succeeded Marc-Antoine Charpentier as maître de musique of the Sainte Chapelle. He was one of the first French composers to write cantatas in which he mixed the French and Italian styles. He composed 39 such cantatas, and also 45 petits motets and 36 grands motets. The largest part of his oeuvre is still unexplored. It includes nine Leçons de Ténèbres, all scored for soprano and basso continuo. These show strong similarities with the cantatas in their mixture of recitatives and airs.

The scope of this disc is wider than music for Passiontide. It is rather about the juxtaposition of light and darkness, death and resurrection. "This recording is a journey among compositions nurtured by the idea of transcendence. The notion of 'ténèbres', of darkness, supposes in a highly Caravaggiesque manner that of light, and the image of the night, the moment when the lesson is sung, announces the day", Jérôme Corréas writes in the booklet. This explains the inclusion of two excerpts from the Leçons des morts by Sébastien de Brossard, a composer who greatly admired the Italian style. That comes to the fore in his use of sighing figures, general pauses and strong contrasts between various episodes.

The programme is rounded off with several instrumental pieces by Henry du Mont and the sonata La Visionnaire by François Couperin. In particular Du Mont is a composer whose compositions show a great amount of expression, and that includes his short instrumental works.

It is the repertoire which is the main attraction of this disc. In particular the oeuvre of Michel deserves to be explored. The two lessons performed here have made me curious about the whole set of Leçons de Ténèbres. This disc's significance in regard to the repertoire makes it all the more regrettable that the performances are rather unsatisfying. The voices of Isabelle Poulenard and Jean-François Lombard are not a particularly good match and especially the incessant wide vibrato of the former is annoying and damages the overall result. This repertoire deserves better and will reveal its full qualities only with a vocally more stylish performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Marianne Beate Kielland
Isabelle Poulenard
Carolyn Sampson
Les Paladins
The King's Consort

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