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Concert reviews

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Leçons de Ténèbres
Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre
concert: Dec 8, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

[in order of performance] plainchant: Zelus domus tuae, antiphon; Salvum me fac Deus, psalm; Zelus domus tuae, antiphon; Advertantur retrorsum, verse; François COUPERIN: Premère Leçon pour le Mercredy Saint; plainchant: In monte Oliveti, responsory; François COUPERIN: Deuxième Leçon pour le Mercredy Saint; plainchant: Tristis est anima mea, responsory; François COUPERIN: Trosième Leçon pour le Mercredy Saint; plainchant: Justificeris Domine, antiphon; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Miserere

Sophie Junker, soprano; Eva Zaïcek, mezzo-soprano; Lucas Peres, viola da gamba; Vincent Dumestre, theorbo; Frédéric Rivoal, harpsichord, organ

"Nice prelude to Christmas (concerts): Le Poème Harmonique with songs by François Couperin". That was the text of a tweet by the TivoliVredenburg concert hall. Rather odd, don't you think? What we heard were not songs, but the three Leçons de Ténèbres. One wonders whether the author of that tweet has ever heard them or even know what they are about. These pieces were specifically written for Holy Week and have nothing to do with Christmas. In many countries that seems to be no problem at all. It is quite common that Bach's St Matthew Passion, for instance, is performed at a festival during summer. That is nearly inconceivable in the Netherlands. When some years ago the Festival Early Music Utrecht - taking place every year around 1 September - programmed a performance of this work under the direction of René Jacobs, the festival director felt it necessary to explain this to the audience.

How many people raised their eyebrows when they saw that this concert was to take place in early December? I don't know, but at least they did not decide to stay away. One of the reasons that so many people attended the concert certainly is the quality of the music. Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres are pretty well known and have been recorded quite often.

These pieces link up to a long and impressive tradition of performing settings of parts of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, one of the books in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Lamentations were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah to express the sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. In them the prophet doesn't hide the fact that these were the result of the people turning away from God. Therefore when the Christian Church used these Lamentations to express grief over the passion and death of Jesus, each part was concluded with the phrase: "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. This is reflected in the names of the Leçons de Ténèbres: Couperin's settings are written pour le Mercredy Saint, for Ash Wednesday, and uses the texts originally intended for Maundy Thursday.

These pieces can be performed in various ways. Although French composers wrote their settings of the Lamentations for performances in churches and convents, they were mostly sung by singers from the opera, which was closed during Holy Week. This did not meet universal approval as the singers "are placed behind a curtain, which they draw back now and again to smile at their supporters in the congregation". The popularity of the performances of the Leçons and of their interpreters made some churches even require entrance fees. Because of that a performance of these Leçons as 'concert pieces' is fully legitimate.

Le Poème Harmonique opted for another approach. The word Leçon derives from the place of the Lamentations within the Matins. The Matins service consisted of three Nocturnes, each containing three Psalms with their respective antiphons, and three lessons (Leçons) with their responsories. The lessons of the first Nocturne were taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The word ténèbre (from the Latin tenebrae, darkness) refers to the habit of gradually extinguishing 15 candles during the service. This was the reason that the ensemble performed Couperin's Leçons in a kind of liturgical setting. The concert opened with the antiphon Zelus domus tuae, followed by the opening verse from Psalm 68 (69), Salvum me fac Deus, after which the antiphon was repeated. These pieces - as were all the plainchant items in the programme - were taken from a collection of liturgical chants published in Paris in 1681. The first Leçon was introduced by the verse Advertantur retorsum. The chant was sung from the balcony by the mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik. Then Sophie Junker sang the first Leçon with great clarity; the vocalises on the Hebrew letters which open every verse came off impressively. These settings include some strongly dramatic elements, which reflect the Italian influence in Couperin's music, and that was perfectly conveyed by Ms Junker.

Eva Zaïcek came to the platform and after the responsory In monte Oliveti she sang the Deuxième Leçon. It is not very different in its tessitura from the first Leçon and although Eva Zaïcek was labelled a mezzo-soprano she had no problems with the range of her part whatsoever; she was a perfect match for Ms Junker. There was no lack of text expression and Ms Zaïcek dealt well with the coloratura. After another responsory, Tristis est anima mea the two singers joined in what is probably the most brilliant of the three pieces, the Troisième Leçon. In particular in the opening verses there are some intriguing harmonic progressions which were explored to the full, thanks to the excellent intonation of the singers whose voices blended very well. The first voice requires a wide tessitura and includes some very high notes, but Ms Junker sang them with impressive ease.

Another antiphon, Justificeris Domine, was followed by Miserere, a setting of Psalm 50 (51), one of the penitential psalms for Lent, from the pen of Michel Lambert, one of the main composers of airs de cour in 17th-century France. The Miserere for two voices and bc is one of the very limited numbers of sacred works from his pen. It is a highly expressive work and shows the same qualities as his secular songs which are among the best written in France in his time. The Miserere is divided into verses and after every verse one of the candles at the stage was extinguished. After the last verse the last candle was snuffed out and the performers switched off the lights at their standards, leaving the hall in (almost) complete darkness. It was a fitting end to a highly captivating event; despite the time of the year and the nasty habit of Dutch concertgoers to disturb performances with their coughing it was almost completely silent during the performance. The tension which had been built up during the evening was released in a long applause.

Wasn't there anything to criticise? Yes, there was. Firstly, now and then quite some vibrato crept up in both voices which is not tenable from a historical and stylistic angle. This would probably have been less noticeable in a more forgiving acoustic. Don't get me wrong: the acoustic of the chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg (Hertz) is excellent and the hall itself has a nice intimacy. It was the ideal venue for the concert of Marco Beasley I reviewed some time ago. But for this kind of music it is less suited; this programme would have come off even better in a church. But for the choice of venue one cannot blame the performers. Considering the circumstances the performances could hardly have been better. The audience probably did not come only for Couperin's great music but also for Le Poème Harmonique which has performed several times in the Utrecht festival as well. Those who expected a performance of high quality were certainly not disappointed.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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