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Michel LAMBERT (c.1610-1696)
Leçons de Ténèbres (1689)
Disc One
Première Leçon Du Mercredi Saint for voice and continuo [20:35]
Deuxième Leçon Du Mercredi Saint for voice and continuo [15:02]
Troisième Leçon Du Mercredi Saint for voice and continuo [15:58]
Première Leçon Du Jeudi Saint for voice and continuo [16:52]
Disc Two
Deuxième Leçon Du Jeudi Saint for voice and continuo [11:23]
Troisième Leçon Du Jeudi Saint for voice and continuo [15:27]
Première Leçon Du Vendredi Saint for voice and continuo [17:19]
Deuxième Leçon Du Vendredi Saint for voice and continuo [12:47]
Troisième Leçon Du Vendredi Saint for voice and continuo [13:59]
Noémi Rime (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Charles Brett (countertenor); Howard Crook (tenor); Philippe Foulon (viola da gamba); Mauricio Buraglia (theorbo); Ivète Piveteau (harpsichord, positive organ, director)
rec. October 1988, Abbaye de Royaumont, France. DDD
VIRGIN VERITAS 0946 3 85789 2 5 [69:43 + 72:06]

Leçons de Ténèbres are the combination of Matins and Lauds for the last three days (Thursday, Friday and Saturday; by the seventeenth century the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) of Holy Week. They have a noble pedigree musically, having been set by such eminent composers as De Lalande, Gesualdo, Couperin and Charpentier. Their name derives from the fact that the place of worship became progressively darker as a candle was extinguished after each Psalm was sung: by the end… complete darkness.

Polyphonic settings of the ‘Lamentations’ by Morales, Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina had given way by the time of Lambert (c.1610 – 1696) to monodic settings in conformity with the seconda prattica – there was a single vocal line with continuo accompaniment. The present arrangement on this two-disc set by French composer Michel Lambert of the Leçons de Ténèbres is highly concentrated; intense, probing, pared almost to a minimum. The richness comes – in the same way as it does with Purcell – from melody and structure, not the texture.

Michel Lambert, who has no other CD in the current catalogue dedicated entirely to his works, was born around 1610 and worked as a singer in Paris, married a singer and was father to Lully’s wife. He was widely praised as both teacher of the voice and performer. In addition to three hundred ‘Airs’, Lambert composed two sets of Leçons de Ténèbres – in 1663 and 1689. It’s the latter that we have here on two beautifully-recorded CDs (released originally in 1989) in the Abbaye de Royaumont with an ensemble of specialists under the direction of Ivète Piveteau.

Stylistically the Leçons de Ténèbres have much in common with Lambert’s ‘Airs’: there is elaborate variation with flourishes to emphasise the more significant points of text on the vocal line; they often use the more staid Roman ‘tonus lamentationum’ as the melodic foundation and exploit ornate instrumental accompaniment. It’s thought that Lambert played the theorbo in at least one performance of these Leçons de Ténèbres.

At first you may be shocked by the concentrated intimacy of this music. As with Purcell, there’s a good deal of chromaticism; yet the pace and forward movement are less insistent for Lambert than is the case in even the most reflective of Purcell’s songs. The first few movements of the Première Leçon, for example, set an almost relaxed tempo, which actually allows every nuance to be savoured wonderfully. Moments of rapture and high animation - the ‘Lamed’ (‘O Vos Omnes’) from the Mercredi Troisième Leçon, for instance – are rare and too infrequent, really, to count towards the kind of inner tension at which Monteverdi was so expert a couple of generations earlier. This intimacy is really a meditative distillation of devout regret by an 80-year old. Add to it the close recording and you have a very atmospheric performance full of pathos, sadness and pity. The gentle, sensitive continuo, in fact, is almost closer at times than the voices.

Some may even find at first that such a combination strays just a little on the romantic side, lingering and languishing in order to squeeze out every drop of feeling. Repeated listening, however, will convince you that the sentiment (of searching, for example, and loss) is in the music; the performance is reflecting, not manufacturing, this.

Charles Brett’s gentle countertenor leads the way in understatement where restraint is needed; drive where emphasis is called for; and sinuous yet clear articulation throughout. His presence in the each première leçon (Stutzmann and Rime take the deuxièmes with Rime the Mercredi troisième and Cook the other troisièmes) is a tour de force. All the singers are utterly in control of the long, usually slow, arches of text that describe the events of the leçons – which are in Latin.

The booklet is a little on the slim side – no texts and not much background; nothing about the performers. But that’s a small price to pay. This two-CD set is full of beautiful, concentrated music expertly played and with great feeling and respect for both the composer’s intentions and the sombreness of the liturgical event. It’s never gloomy music, though dour and melancholy at times. If extended, pointed, sparsely accompanied, yet richly coloured, solo sacred Baroque music appeals, then this will too. Add the fact that Lambert is under-represented in the current catalogue yet well worth exploring and you can safely buy this set. 

Mark Sealey 


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