Here is a generous disc - almost an
hour and a quarter of wonderful music
- centring on the Leçons de
Ténèbres by French
Baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande.
These are set in the context, and interleaved
with, four much shorter pieces in the
tombeau style by almost exact
contemporaries of de Lalande, Marin
Marais, Robert de Visée; and
uncle to François Couperin, Louis,
from the preceding generation. Soprano
Isabelle Desrochers is joined by harpsichordist/organist
Pierre Trocellier with Mauricio Buraglia
(theorbo) and Nima Ben David to perform
music of great beauty, eloquence and
atmosphere. It’s all imaginatively conceived
and excellently played.
Michel-Richard de Lalande
was one of the most influential and
accomplished composers of sacred music
for performance by women at the court
of Versailles in the years around the
beginning of the eighteenth century.
At a time when most such music was the
province of male voices, it was almost
certainly because of the gifts of de
Lalande’s wife, Anne Rebel, and their
two daughters, Marie-Anne and Jeanne
that the composer set such store by
music he obviously deemed suitable for
their particular talents. Of this corpus,
his three surviving Leçons
de Ténèbres are not
only the most typical examples, but
the most expressive and persuasive.
On the sequence in this recording are
the third leçons
only (the other two in each case have
been lost; we would have had nine in
all) for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday
of Holy Week.
Sombre, slow, pensive
and intense, the leçons last
18, 22 and 12 minutes respectively.
A single solo soprano almost guides
the continuo players - and would have
originally led the congregation - through
an Old Testament (‘Lamentations of Jeremiah’)
narration. This accompanies the gradual
extinguishing of candles in the place
of worship until there is complete darkness.
Rarely (as towards
the start of the leçon
for Thursday) is the downbeat and subdued
mood broken. Chromatic, studied, depressed
almost, the leçons are highly
evocative. And the forces assembled
here for part of Naïve’s (though
issued by Audivis/Astrée in 1996)
‘Baroque Voices’ series (number 6) are
extremely well attuned to that evocation.
Gentle, undemonstrative, inward-looking
and helped by a quiet and intimate recording,
they really make the most of music that
deserves to be played and replayed until
it has seeped into the listener as incense
might into the heads of believers.
Since the leçons
took the form of Odes, there is a declamatory
element to them. Indeed, they each end
with an exhortation to Jerusalem to
‘Convertere: Turn to the Lord,
thy God’. Perhaps Desrochers dismisses
the dramatic potential for this ever
so slightly; the music is chromatic
and contains tensions building on expectations
that would have made such an interpretation
natural. But this is a small point.
Her singing is solid, appropriately
rich and direct; yet relaxed and delivered
in such a way that the music speaks
for itself. There is no dressing here.
Between the leçons,
then, are tombeaux or commemorative
encomia of a (recently) dead member
of the composer’s family or of a luminary
in (local) musical or cultural circles.
Consciously avoiding any attempt to
recreate the full Leçons de Ténèbres
service with any degree of authenticity,
this CD includes four tombeaux
appropriate to French Baroque music
of the late seventeenth century. Eventually
tombeaux took the form of ‘allemandes’
and acquired the status of a respected
genre in their own right. Interestingly,
and touchingly, Tombeau des Mesdemoiselles
de Visée remembers his daughters.
The tombeaux for both Blancrocher
(a lutenist who fell down stairs) and
Lully (who accidentally stabbed
himself with a baton) recall violent
The booklet is useful,
contains the texts in Latin, French,
English and Spanish. This is satisfying,
stimulating and somehow unpretentiously
genuine music making that will have
wide appeal. There are other versions
available of most of the material here.
But this can safely be recommended.