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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Leçons de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saint (Tenebræ for Wednesday in Holy Week) (1713-1717) [38:48]
4 Versets du Motet: Tabescere me fecit [1:27]; Ignitum eloquium [2:26]; Adolescentius sum ego [2:51]; Justitia tua [2:01]
Sophie Daneman (soprano); Patricia Petibon (soprano)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. 1996. DDD.
ERATO 0630 17067 2 [47:32]
Experience Classicsonline


Reviewing the Virgin Veritas reissue of some of Charpentier’s Leçons de Ténèbres made me think about this recording as its perfect foil. That Veritas reissue offers Charpentier’s Tenebræ settings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with readings from Lamentations 2 and 3; on this Erato recording are Couperin’s settings of the Tenebræ lessons for Wednesday in Holy Week from Lamentations 1 – all that survives of his output in this genre.

Whereas Charpentier’s settings are often elaborate, dramatic, and feature two or more voices, Couperin’s are typically more intimate and reflective and set for solo voice or two voices, though they also feature the elaborate melismata on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet which commence each section of the text of Lamentations, as prescribed in the Roman Breviary. Despite their greater inwardness, these Couperin settings are often more arresting and memorable than Charpentier’s, as, for example, his setting of the words princeps provinciarum (the ruler of the provinces) in the first lesson.

Tenebræ, the office of Matins for the last three days of Holy Week, the Sacred Triduum, was in seventeenth-century France and elsewhere brought forward to the late afternoon or evening of the previous day, which means that these lessons for Holy Wednesday are actually those for Matins of Maundy Thursday. (For a fuller explanation, see the Charpentier review.)

Couperin’s settings have been recorded a number of times, most recently by The Theatre of Early Music (BISCD-1346). Reviewing that recording, RH mentions this Erato version with strong approval: "Christie’s superb recording uses sopranos Patricia Petibon and Sophie Daneman, who sing with great purity and use French pronunciation for the Latin." Though RH liked the Bis recording, his reservations about its slight lack of intensity and emotion imply that it would not be his ultimate choice. He specifically mentions Alfred Deller’s performance, but he was also thinking of this Christie version when he wrote "I have a soft spot for the soprano versions of these pieces, and a preference for a performance more inflected by French Baroque mannerisms."

I had intended to retrieve my copy of this Erato recording from our holiday home in the New Forest but, prevented by making the journey as a result of having to wait for a plumber to fix a leak, I downloaded it from itunes – a pretty good substitute, also available from Warner, which allows me to submit this review alongside that of the Charpentier. I would, however, recommend purchasing the CD: downloading doesn’t get you the booklet with texts and notes – pretty essential for this music unless you happen to have access to the Vulgate texts of Lamentations or a pre-1971 Holy Week Manual. You’d have to do even more searching on the web to obtain the texts of the four short motets which round off the CD. I must apologise, also, for the fact that not having the CD to hand means that I can’t give the recording venue and dates as usual.

Singing, accompaniment and recording are all that could be desired. The accompaniment is, appropriately, the lightest possible. Some may be put off by the French pronunciation of Latin – rather strange to those used to Italianate pronunciation – but that is what Couperin would have expected to hear. My only reservation is the short playing time. Even with the four short motets, well worth hearing and equally well performed and recorded, the disc runs to less than 48 minutes. Bis offer the slightly more substantial Magnificat, but my allegiance remains with this Erato recording, especially as the longer playing time of the Bis version is partly due to the more leisurely tempi on that CD.

There is also a very good version of the Leçons, coupled with the Magnificat, Lætentur cœli and Venite exultemus on Hyperion CDA66747 – James Bowman and Michael Chance accompanied by Robert King et al. With two counter-tenors rather than two sopranos, this version is complementary to the Christie. The fact that it offers a more respectable playing time of 63:09 is neither here nor there, nor is the fact that I keep one at home and the other at our holiday home – both have honoured places in my collection.

Those three fillers on the Hyperion recording also feature on another Couperin collection, performed by Jill Feldman, Jaap ter Linden et al on a recommendable budget-price Harmonia Mundi recording (HMA190 1150) which seems to be out of the catalogue at the moment – look out for remainders or wait for it to reappear, as I hope it will.

Let me also recommend Christie’s recordings of Charpentier, in particular, the super-budget-price 4-CD reissue on 2564 61758 2 – four superb premium-price CDs in their original jewel cases bundled together in a new cardboard wrapper: Divertissements, airs et concerts; Les Plaisirs de Versailles; In navitatem Domini canticum and La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers. I may have been bitten by the download bug recently, but for around £20 or even less, this is about as economical, less tedious and less likely to strain your broadband allocation than downloading these recordings and you get all the original lavish documentation.

Brian Wilson



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