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Concert reviews

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): "Noël à Paris"
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
concert: Dec 16, 2015, Utrecht, Geertekerk

In nativitatem Domini nostri J[esu] C[hristi] canticum (H 414); Pastorale sur la naissance de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (H 483); Salut de la veille des O et les 7 O suivant le romain (H 36-43) & Noëls sur les instruments (H 53) (Or nous dites Marie)

Violiane Le Chenadec, Caroline Weynants, Caroline Dangin Bardot, soprano; Lucile Richardot, contralto; Stephen Collardelle, hautecontre; Davy Cornillot, tenor; Etienne Bazola, baritone; Renaud Bres, Nicolas Brooymans, bass; Julien Martin, Matthieu Bertaud, recorder; Alice Julien-Laferrière, Béatrice Linon, violin; Mathilde Vialle, Julien Hainsworth, viola da gamba; Diego Salamanca, theorbo; Sébastien Daucé, harpsichord, organ

If we exaggerate a little the life of Marc-Antoine Charpentier had something of the dramas he probably would have liked to compose if he had been given the chance. But the operatic scene was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully who wanted to make sure that no Italian influences disturbed the development of a purely French style. Charpentier had been in Rome for some years and that discredited him as a true French composer. He created just one opera, Médée, generally considered one of the masterworks of 17th-century French music.

His Italian affiliations also prevented him from taking a major position in French musical life, for instance at the court of Louis XIV. For about twenty years he was in the service of the family De Guise which had lived for some time in Italy and loved Italian music. For the Hôtel de Guise, as the Maison de Guise was known, he composed a large amount of music, among them three Pastorales, successively in 1684, 1685 and 1686. The last of these was Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ which was the main work in a concert by the Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé, part of a series of concerts in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The pastorale was a popular genre in the second half of the 17th century. Charpentier composed at least five such pieces. Originally it was a secular genre. In 1672 Charpentier composed the pastorale Eglogue en Musique et en Danse as a prologue to Molière's play Le Malade imaginaire. But the features of such a piece were well suited to the subject of the shepherds who are chosen by God to be the first to hear about the birth of Jesus. It seems that the pastorale performed during the concert was meant to be staged in some way or another, but there were no theatrical elements in the performance by the Ensemble Correspondances. It is in two parts - which was not quite clear from the programme - and it is likely that in between a sermon was held. In the first half several protagonists - a shepherdess, an old shepherd - express the misery of everyday life as a consequence of mankind having fallen into sin. The old shepherd expresses his expectation of salvation coming soon and this is followed by an angel announcing the birth of Jesus. "The Word, originator of all, comes here to take form; let all be silent in his presence". Here Charpentier requires "une grande silence" which unfortunately was largely ignored by the performers. It is followed by a lively dialogue between the old shepherd and the angel; the latter is supported by a host of angels who end the first part with a song of praise: "Glory in the highest".
The second part begins - again after a 'grand silence' - with a shepherdess warning the shepherds of the danger of wolves. They have already taken some of her sheep. "Alas, am I not thousand and thousand times unhappy". But she is answered by the other shepherds: "Blessed thousand and thousand times". They urge each other to "banish all sorrows"; the loss of sheep is more than made up for by the birth of the Saviour. The piece goes on with the shepherds expressing their joy about the fact of Jesus' birth and its effects on mankind.
This pastorale is a mixture of solos and tutti, often in quick succession. Some passages are first sung by a solo voice and then repeated by the tutti. Notable is the important role of the instruments: two recorders and two violins.

The Pastorale took the whole second part of the concert. The first part ended with a much shorter piece for Christmas, In nativitatem Domini nostri J[esu] C[hristi] canticum. In the catalogue of Charpentier's works it is ranked among the 'dramatic motets' or oratorios. This is different from the oratorios and also from the Pastorale in that there are no roles. It is rather a description of the meeting between the angels and the shepherds who are urged to go to Bethlehem to see and worship the new-born. The dramatic element is the alternation of soli and tutti which results in a very lively picture of what happened that night in Bethlehem.

The concert opened with a different kind of music, written for the liturgy. The Salut de la veille des O et les 7 O suivant le romain date from the 1690s when Charpentier worked as maître de musique of the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St Louis. These seven O antiphons, as they are often called, root in a long tradition which goes back to the 8th century. On each of the seven days before Christmas one of these antiphons was sung at the Vespers Magnificat. They appeal for the coming of the Saviour who is given the names which refer to his qualities: wisdom (sapientia), Lord (Adonai), root of Jesse (radix Jesse), key of David (clavis David), dawn (oriens), King of the nations (Rex gentium) and Emmanuel (God with us). They are preceded by O salutaris hostia, sung on 16 December; the text is by St Thomas of Aquinas. The O Antiphons are set for one to four voices and basso continuo; in three of them these are joined by instruments. The antiphons are divided into two sections; the second begins with the word "veni" (come) and here Charpentier often changes the metre to underline the urgency of the appeal. The ensemble had included a noël from Charpentier's Noëls sur les instruments. Although Or nous dites Marie is an instrumental piece, it was performed here vocally which was especially nice as the melody is quite well-known but the text is seldom sung.

The difference between these antiphons, the 'dramatic motet'and the Pastorale guaranteed much variety within the concert. However, in every part of the programme the great dramatic talent of Charpentier came to the fore. Lully was probably afraid of his colleague's competition, and rightly so. Apart from the theatrical features one could enjoy the composer's talent in setting a text to music in a meaningful way, exploring to the full its affects.

The Ensemble Correspondances has specialized in French music of the 17th century, and Charpentier takes a central place in its repertoire. It has several fine discs to its name and when the present programme is released on disc it will certainly be a very worthwhile addition to its discography. It comprises outstanding singers whose voices blend perfectly as came to the fore in the O Antiphons and the ensembles in the Pastorale. These two works also gave the opportunity to admire the qualities of the individual members of the ensemble. In the O Antiphons the hautecontre plays a major role, probably due to the fact that Charpentier himself was a hautecontre. Stephen Collardelle sang this part admirably. In the Pastorale Violaine Le Chenadec gave an excellent account of the role of the angel whereas Renaud Bres made great impression as the old shepherd.

A large part of Charpentier's oeuvre is not as well known as it deserves to be, and excellent performances as those by the Ensemble Correspondances certainly help to demonstrate its superb quality.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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