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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
In Nativitatem Domini Canticum
Messe de Minuit

Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Recorded Grande Salle, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 21-22 December 2000
ERATO 8573-85820-2 [57.02]


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This is a disc of Christmas music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), all the works written during the 1690s possibly for performance at the Jesuit church of Saint-Louis where the composer was Master of the Music. The wide variety of mood, colour and style underlines the extraordinary versatility and originality of this composer, upon whom Carissimi was the strongest influence during his student days in Rome in the 1660s. He was highly prolific (there are no less than 35 works in the oratorio style) and wrote a great deal of both moving and dramatic music. In Nativitatem Domini Canticum relates the Christmas story with instrumental interludes of delicious refinement and includes some exceptionally beautiful music for the singers and players. There are also three instrumental arrangements of carols, called Noëls sur les instruments, scattered about the work (and there is also one in the Messe de Minuit), which were more common in organ music of the period. The Messe (for four vocal parts, flutes and violins) has an unusual compositional structure, using eleven of these so-called carol melodies which are adapted to the liturgical text and result in a unique mix of the sacred and secular.

Much depends upon the characterisation of the figures who feature in the narrative of the Christmas story, such as the heavenly choir or the angel addressing the shepherds, producing what is effectively operatic treatment. The text, drawn from the Scriptures, was derived from several sources producing a patchwork quilt of narrative; the Gospels, Psalms and the Prophet Isaiah being the principal ones. Even though the carols, relatively faithful in metre, rhythm and melody to their original form, may be unfamiliar to many of us, they remain catchily tuneful and clearly defined in what often becomes a fairly complex contrapuntal structure surrounding them.

Under the expert direction of William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants, now celebrating 21 years since their founding, the performances here are in the safest of hands. Pitch is low (A=392 compared to the modern day A=442), the orchestra of 27, the chorus of 26, and the 10 solo singers (who come from within the choir) perform with refinement and sophistication, with a convincingly communicative sense of the musicís unique style. This is a joyful celebration of Christmas and will make an ideal present for the coming festivities.

Christopher Fifield


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