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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Beata est Maria - Motets à trois voix d'hommes"

Vincent Lièvre-Picard, haute-contre; Sébastien Obrecht, taille; Jean-Manuel Candenot, basse-taille
Les Passions
Dir: Jean-Marc Andrieu

rec: Sept 2 - 4, 2011, Tarn, Abbaye-école de Sorèze (abbatiale)
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0202233-11 (© 2011) (56'30")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover & track-list

Ad beatam virginem canticum (Hodie salus) (H 340); Beata est Maria (H 25); Elévation pour la paix (O bone Jesu dulcis) (H 237); Laudate Dominum (H 159); Litanies de la vierge à 3 voix pareilles avec instruments (H 84); Magnificat (H 73); Ouverture pour l'église (H 524); Pour un reposoir: Ouverture dès que la procession paraît (H 523); Salve regina à 3 voix pareilles (H 23); Veni creator (H 54)

Jean-Marie Andrieu, recorder; Laurence Pottier, recorder, bass flute; Fabienne Azéma, Jean-François Bougès, transverse flute; Flavio Losco, Nirina Bougès, violin; Étienne Mangot, basse de violon; Ronaldo Lopes, theorbo; Yasuko Uyama-Bouvard, organ

The music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier is quite common these days. Recordings of his music appear with great regularity. There is much to choose from, in particular his sacred music, as he composed more than 400 pieces of this kind, liturgical and para-liturgical. For a number of years Charpentier had studied in Rome, and this had a lasting influence on his style of composing. Several pieces on this disc bear witness of that.

A number of compositions are scored for "trois voix égales". This has not to be taken literally in the sense of voices of the same tessitura. What is meant is a trio of male voices: haute-contre, tenor and bass. As Charpentier himself was a haute-contre there can be little doubt that he himself was participating in the performances of such pieces. Many of them are about the Virgin Mary, which is not only due to the importance of the veneration of Mary in the Roman-Catholic church. It was even stimulated by Charpentier's employment, first with Mademoiselle de Guise, grand-daughter of the founder of the Catholic League of France - representing the Counter-Reformation - and later of the Jesuits of the rue Saint-Antoine.

The very first piece, the Magnificat (H 73), shows the Italian influence on Charpentier's oeuvre: it is based on a basso ostinato which is, according to the composer, played 89 times. It is a token of his mastery that this doesn't limit its expressive character in any way. The Italian concertato style is used in the hymn Veni creator spiritus (H 54) in which the even-numbered verses are sung by a solo voice, whereas the odd verses are set for three voices in homophony. The strongest expression in the Italian style can be heard in the setting of the Salve Regina (H 23). Not only are various phrases evocatively illustrated in the text, the strong dissonances on the words "in lacrimarum valle", where the three voices all sing a descending line, is quite astonishing and at odds with what was considered good taste in France.

Ad beatam virginem canticum (Hodie salus) (H 340) has notable operatic traits. The verse "Dissipentur inimici" is quite dramatic, reflecting the text: "let our enemies be scattered and let them flee and be destroyed from before her (Mary's) terrifying face". When the text speaks about Mary as man's hope from youth until old age, the latter is expressed by repeated notes, sung staccato, depicting the dragging walk of old people. As one may expect there is also much text expression in the last piece of the programme, the Litanies de la vierge (H 84).

Of course, the French style is present in Charpentier's oeuvre as well. In this recording the two instrumental pieces, specimens of a number of compositions written for liturgical use, are in the French tradition. The Ouverture pour l'église (H 524) has the form of an opera overture, with three sections: slow - fast - slow. The Ouverture pour un reposoir (H 523) makes use of the French practice of juxtaposing a petit choeur and a grand choeur, which we also meet in many French grands motets. The motet Beata est Maria (H 25) has the form of a rondeau.

It is common these days to pronounce the Latin texts in French music according to the practice in France in the baroque period. That is also the case here, although there are some differences with other recordings. Apparently there is no concluding evidence as to exactly how Latin was pronounced. I have already pointed out how often Charpentier makes use of harmony to depict phrases or single words. Thanks to the use of meantone temperament the daring harmonic progressions come off perfectly. Their impact is greatly enhanced by the avoidance of vibrato and the perfect intonation of the singers. They have exquisite voices of great clarity and agility, and they convincingly express the various texts. Their voices also blend well in the tutti. The instrumental parts are given expressive performances as well.

This is another disc which impressively demonstrates why Charpentier's music is considered as some of the best the baroque has given us. It is a shame that the lyrics are only translated in French. Even so, if you don't understand French, don't let the lack of English translations withhold you from purchasing this disc. You would miss some truly great music.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Les Passions

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