musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carlo GESUALDO & François COUPERIN: Music for Holy Week

[I] François COUPERIN: Leçons de Ténèbres - Carlo GESUALDO: "Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday"
Dir: Nigel Short
rec: March 13 - 14a & July 2 - 3b, 2019, London, All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak
Signum Classics - SIGCD622 (© 2020) (77'09")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

François COUPERIN (1668-1733)a: Leçons de Ténèbres
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613): Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia (Feria Quinta)b

Grace Davidson, Julia Doyle, soprano; Jeremy Budd, David de Winter, tenorb; Gabriel Crouch, Jimmy Holliday, bassb
Jonathan Rees, viola da gambaa; Steven Devine, organa

[II] Leçons de Ténèbres
Caroline Muthel, Karine Deshayes, sopranoa
Les Nouveaux Caractères
Dir: Sébastien d'Hérin
rec: April 2019, Lyon, Chapelle de la Trinité
Glossa - GCD 922703 (© 2020) (50'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Leçons de Ténèbresa; Suite for viola da gamba and bc No. 2 in A (Pompe funèbre); Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661): Les Carillons de Paris (BG 140); Pavane in f sharp minor (BG 120)b;

Martin Bauer, viola da gamba; Hager Hanana, cello; Sébastien d'Hérin, harpsichord (solob); Kazuya Gunji, organ

Scores Couperin

The two cycles recorded by Tenebrae count among the most frequently performed pieces for Passiontide. There are quite some recordings to choose from, but I am pretty sure that Couperin and Gesualdo have never met on disc. When I received my copy of this recording, I wondered about the reasons for putting them together, expecting to hear them being integrated into a kind of liturgical context. After all, both Couperin's Leçons de ténèbres and the selection from Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories are intended for the same day of Holy Week. However, we first get Couperin and then Gesualdo.

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is one of the most intriguing characters in music history. His biography stirs the imagination, and so does his music. It is not easy to get a grip on his madrigals, especially those of the last two books. It was for his contributions to this genre that he has become especially famous. For a long time he was considered a loner, whose musical language was unique. Recent studies of his historical context have shown that he was rooted in a tradition which had developed in the second half of the 16th century - in particular Luzzasco Luzzaschi was his model - and that there were also composers of the next generation who followed in his footsteps. Even so, his music has lost nothing of its fascination as he often went into extremes with regard to text expression. In this department one can hardly find his match in his time or afterwards.

In comparison to his madrigals his sacred output has not received the same amount of attention. Today his Cantiones Sacrae of 1603 and his Responsoria are regularly performed and are available in more than one recording. Even so, the attention for this part of his oeuvre is in no way comparable to that for his madrigals. That is rather odd as in harmonic language and text expression they are hardly less remarkable. The Responsoria were printed in the same year as the fifth and sixth madrigal books. The fact that Gesualdo had his printer move his printing press to the composer's house bears witness to the great care with which he treated these publications, probably intended as his legacy to the world. All three of them demonstrate the specific features of his compositional style.

It is impossible to say with any amount of certainty for which occasion Gesualdo may have written the Responsoria and where they may have been performed. It is quite possible that he wrote them as an expression of his personal faith and that they were performed in his own chapel. This has some relevance in regard to the number of singers which should or could be involved in a performance. Whereas Nigel Short in his recording of the Responsories for Holy Saturday opted for an ensemble of sixteen singers, in this recording the Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday are performed with one voice per part. This allows for even more flexibility in the realisation of the many twists and turns in these pieces and a more prominent role of the text.

If one listens to these Responsories, one is struck by the graphic depiction of elements in the text. It can hardly surprise that in this respect they are not that different from the madrigals. After all, the texts of these Responsories are mostly just as gloomy as those Gesualdo used for his madrigals. To a certain extent the expression here is even stronger as the Responsories are clearly connected by their subject, whereas the madrigals are mostly individual pieces. Moreover, the comparison with settings of these texts by other composers only underlines the singularity of the way Gesualdo treated them. In particular if they are performed during Passiontide, they can hardly fail to make impact. The performance is just as differentiated as the character of the individual Responsories. Some are rather intimate, and focus on the expression of sadness, for instance in Unus ex discipulis meis: "One of my disciples will this day betray me: woe to him by whom I am betrayed. It had been better for him, if he had not been born". Other Responsories are highly dramatic. A good example is Tristis est anima mea, especially on the lines "Now shall ye see the crowd that shall surround me: ye shall take flight, and I shall go to be offered for you". Nigel Short and his singers are not afraid to explore these dramatic features, for instance in dynamics. Sometimes I wondered whether they are exaggerating. After all, this is vocal chamber music, intended for private performance (assuming that they have ever been actually performed). But that may be just a matter of preference. There can be little doubt that these performances contribute to these pieces making a lasting impression.

With Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres we are in an entirely different world. In France the performance of Leçons de Ténèbres was one of the main liturgical events during the reign of Louis XIV. They became so popular that they were often performed during public concerts for which the audience had to pay. Of course these concerts took place during the day, instead of the early hours of the morning when the Lamentations originally were meant to be sung.

Although the texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah were set by Italian and German composers as well, the phenomenon of the Leçons de Ténèbres was typically French. That is reflected by the number of settings by French composers. One of them was Marc-Antoine Charpentier who wrote several cycles. Others are Michel-Richard de Lalande and Michel Lambert. François Couperin didn't compose as much religious music as some of his contemporaries, but his sacred oeuvre is of high quality, and his Leçons de Ténèbres belong to the best he has written.

It is known that he composed three sets of Leçons, for every day thee lessons, but for some reason only the Leçons for Maundy Thursday were published. Other settings from his pen have never been found. The first two Leçons are written for soprano with basso continuo, the third for two sopranos and bc. The soprano parts are different in tessitura: the soprano part in the first Leçon is a little lower than that in the second. Stylistically, they are a mixture of French and Italian elements. They include some quite dramatic passages, and Couperin also uses harmony for expressive purposes. As was customary in settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Hebrew letters preceding each section are set to long melismas.

The recording by Tenebrae has to compete with a pretty large number of existing performances. Of all the recordings I have heard, only a few are really satisfying. The main reason that many are not is that the singers use too much vibrato and don't blend that well in the third Leçon. That is much better here. Both Julia Doyle (Première Leçon) and Grace Davidson (Seconde Leçon) reduce their vibrato to a bare minimum, although Doyle could have gone even a step further. There is no problem of blending in the third Leçon. It is nice - but pretty usual these days - that Latin is pronounced as was common in France at the time. The tempi in the recordings in the catalogue differ quite a lot. Overall, it seems that here the performers have chosen a rather quiet tempo. In particular the first Leçon is a bit too slow.

However, on balance I have enjoyed these performances, and I rate this recording among the better in the catalogue. If you are open to both renaissance polyphony and French baroque music, this disc is a serious proposition for both Gesualdo and Couperin.

The second disc is more conventional in that it confines itself to the three Leçons de Ténèbres by Couperin. In between we hear some instrumental music by him and by his uncle Louis. Sébastien d'Hérin takes a more dramatic approach to the Leçons de Ténèbres than Tenebrae. This comes to the fore in more marked dynamic contrasts, a more 'operatic' way of singing and faster tempi. To illustrate the latter aspect: the first Leçon takes 14'03" vs. 16'20" in Tenebrae's performance. This approach seems legitimate; in this performance by Caroline Mutel, Karine Deshayes and Les Nouveaux Caractères the Italian influences are more emphasized than in Tenebrae's recording. The basso continuo is also given more prominence, partly due to the participation of two string bass instruments. The use of a cello seems questionable, as these pieces were printed in the mid-1710s, when the cello hardly played a role in French music as yet. Unfortunately, the 'operatic' way of singing also means that the two singers use more vibrato than is desirable and tenable from a historical and stylistic point of view. This damages the two Leçons for solo voice, and even more the one for two voices.

The three instrumental pieces receive fine performances. Sébastien d'Hérin himself delivers an excellent account of Louis Couperin's Pavane in f sharp minor. However, these pieces can't quite save this disc. Among the recordings of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres, this one does not make it into the higher echelons. The short playing time does not speak in its favour either.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Karine Deshayes
Les Nouveaux Caractères

CD Reviews