musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Charles LEVENS (1689 - 1764): Sacred Music

[I] "Te Deum"
Sophie Landy, Sophie Pattey, soprano; Vincent Lièvre-Picard, hautecontre; Sébastien Obrecht, tenor; Sébastien Brohier, Marduk Serrano, baritone; Marcos Loureiro de Sà, bass
Members of l'Ensemble baroque Orfeo and the Groupe Vocal Arpège; Les Passions
Dir: Michel Laplénie

rec: Nov 8 - 11, 2007, Bordeaux, Chapelle de la Miséricorde
Éditions Hortus - 060 (© 2008) (67'29")

[II] "Messe des Morts"
Sagittarius; Ensemble vocal Arpège
Dir: Michel Laplénie

rec: [no date and place given]
Et'cetera - KTC 1340 (© 2007) (59'04")

[I] Deus noster refugium; Te Deum
[II] Messe des Morts (I) in F; Messe des Morts (II) in F

It is very likely that you have never heard of Charles Levens. You are in good company: the editors of New Grove haven't either. And in the about 40 years that I am listening to early music I haven't seen his name appear anywhere. When I received the disc with his Te Deum I was convinced it was the first time any music by Levens had been recorded. I was wrong: when my review of the first disc appeared on MusicWeb International, a reader informed me that Michel Laplénie had recorded music by Levens some years ago. It was in 2003, to be precise, on the little-known label Lira d'Arco - which is probably the reason I hadn't noticed it - and was reissued by Et'cetera in 2007. I was able to borrow that disc from the public library in my hometown, and I decided to extend my original review for MusicWeb here.

One of the reasons this composer is unknown is the fact that he has never worked in Paris or Versailles. Those were the places to be in France in the 17th and 18th century if you wanted to make a good career as a composer. France was different from, for instance, Germany or Italy, in that it was a centralized country and was completely dominated by the capital and the royal court, not only politically, but also culturally. As a result it isn't surprising that the largest part of the French repertoire performed in modern times has been written by composers who were working in Paris or Versailles. Music by composers who worked in other cities and regions is relatively little-known.

Charles Levens was born in Marseille and was a choirboy in several choir schools of the Provence. In 1718 he started working in Vannes (Brittany), in 1723 he moved to Toulouse, and in 1738 he was appointed head of the choir school of Saint André Cathedral in Bordeaux, where he stayed the rest of his life. He may have worked far from the capital most of the time, his works were well known there: his Grands Motets and other works were performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris and also at the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. Other performances are documented in Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.

Levens almost exclusively wrote religious music, and he felt most at home in the genre of the Motet en symphonie, the motet for voices and instruments. All the works on these two discs belong to this genre.

The Te Deum is a text which was often set to music for performances at the occasion of military victories, coronations, the birth of royal heirs etcetera. Levens conducted his Te Deum when Maréchal Du Plessis de Richelieu, the town governor, entered Bordeaux on 4 June 1758. At the composer's request the forces of Saint André Cathedral were extended by no less than 30 musicians from outside. This seems to support the use of a pretty large ensemble here, in particular in regard to the choir which consists of 28 singers. The size of the instrumental ensemble is probably a bit too modest in comparison: in particular in the tutti sections the balance could have been better.

Levens's setting of the Te Deum is very impressive, and it seems it made a good impression in his time as well: a performance is documented as late as 1789. It begins not - as one may expect - with a choral section, but rather with an instrumental symphonie, followed by a récit for haute-contre with basso continuo, with the strings playing only in the ritornello. After a choral section the text "tibi omnes angeli" (to thee all the angels [proclaim]) is sung by a trio of the three high voices (2 sopranos and hautecontre). Towards the end of the first section there is a sudden shift of rhythm in order to single out the words "Dominus Deus Sabaoth". The haute-contre Vincent Lièvre-Picard has really a fantastic voice, with a bright sound, and he distinguishes himself by a clear diction and a truly declamatory delivery of the text. He blends very well with the two sopranos in the trio.

The next section is written as a solo for the taille, the French term for tenor. He is accompanied by strings with oboes playing colla parte. Levens has written an ascending figure on the words "majestatis gloriae tuae" (the majesty of thy glory) - one of many examples of direct text illustration. Sébastien Obrecht has a beautiful voice, but tends to be a little too theatrical. He uses a bit too much vibrato and he is also pretty loud, but to his credit I have to say that in the next section he holds back when he sings with the hautecontre. I had liked him to hold back in his solos as well, but there is no lack of text expression in his contributions.

The fifth section, Te rex gloria, is set for dessus (soprano) - Sophie Landy also uses a little too much vibrato, but her diction is excellent. In the sixth section, Tu ad dexteram, we hear the bass, Marcos Loureiro de Sà, with oboes and bc - another very fine voice; his text delivery is also very good. The most moving and most remarkable section in this Te Deum is the 11th, 'Dignare, Domine'. It is written for three solo voices: haute-contre, tenor and bass. It is full of suspiratio figures, which is explained by the text: "O Lord, deign to keep us from sin this day. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us." It is just brilliantly sung, with a maximum of expression, by the three soloists, whose voices blend perfectly. The last section begins with a fugal passage which returns later. In the closing bars the word "confundar" is repeated many times on a falling figure whereas other voices at the same time repeat "non, non", bringing this splendid composition to an exciting end.

The motet Deus noster refugium, a setting of Psalm 45 (46), is no less interesting. Here again the work opens - after a symphonie - with a solo, again for haute-contre. It radiates peace and quiet, reflecting trust in God: "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble". This is all the more telling as the next verses tell what could happen to the earth: "(We will not fear), though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea". The music is fast, agitated, restless, with biting accents. It is fittingly set for three basses with strings and bc - the three singers pull out all the stops. The same does the choir in the next verse which prolong the previous verse: "Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof". The next section, consisting of verses 5 and 6 ('Fluminis impetus'), is a solo for the haute-contre. The basso continuo very directly depicts the flowing of the water in the first line of this verse: "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God".

The closing section of this motet again brings a surprise. The psalm ends (vs 12) with a return to the beginning, expressing the trust in God: "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge". But after this we get verse 10: "He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear insunder; he burneth the charic in the fire". As a result the motet ends in a most dramatic fashion: a sequence of soli and tutti passages over agile and sharply accentuated instrumental parts. It shows again that Levens is anything but a conventional composer and had a great sense of drama and text expression.

The booklet contains all the information one needs. But I hope you are able to read French. The English programme notes and the English translation of the lyrics are pretty much unreadable as they are printed in yellow letters on a white background. Whoever has come up with that brilliant idea should be locked up.

Like I said I became acquainted with the earlier recording of two Messes des Morts only after having written my review of the disc with Levens' Te Deum and Deus noster refugium. I was wondering whether my positive impressions of Levens as a composer were supported by the two settings of the Requiem. I was not disappointed - on the contrary. Both have several qualities which support my view that Levens was a really outstanding composer who - despite similarities with other composers - is very much his own man. Therefore his music is a real addition to the catalogue.

Both Messes des Morts are written in the same key and are scored for four solo voices, five-part tutti and basso continuo. Interestingly Levens has added two bassoon parts in both masses, which he uses very effectively for the sake of text expression. The first Messe des Morts begins with a motif in the bassoons, which is followed by an expressive solo for bass on the text "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine". The next line is sung by the tenor, whose lighter timbre matches the text "et lux perpetua luceat eis" (and may everlasting light shine upon them). The Graduale is dominated by a motif in trochee rhythm (long-short) in the basso continuo and the bassoons. In the 'Lux aeterna' Levens turns to the hautecontre to express the prayer for the "everlasting light". The text "Requiem aeternam" is then illustrated by a descending motif. In 'Libera me' tremolos in bassoons and tenor solo express the shaking of heaven and earth and the fear of God's judgment.

The same effects are used in the second setting of the Requiem by Levens. Again this mass begins with a motif (high-low) in the bassoons, this time in the way of a fanfare, probably referring to the last trumpet. In the Offertorium it is the bass soloist who sings about the "infernal punishment" on a descending motif. In 'Lux aeterna' it is the bassoons again which play a repeated motif in a low pitch on the text "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine".

The performances are slightly less brilliant than those on the disc with the Te Deum and Psalm 45. But they are good enough to convince the listener once again that Charles Levens was a first-rate composer whose oeuvre is in no way inferior to the best sacred music which was written in the 18th century in France. These two discs are monuments of a unjustly neglected master.

Et'cetera often distinguishes itself by its sloppiness. It is not different this time: neither the soloists nor the members of the choir or the instrumentalists are mentioned, and date and place of the recording are not given either. Shame on them!

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews