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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Salve Regina à trois chœurs [6’27"]
Messe à quatre chœurs [37’15"]
Salut de la veille des ‘O’ [16’26"]
Le reniement de St Pierre [12’11"]
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
Recording: St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London 31 Jan-1 Feb 2003 DDD
HYPERION CDA67435 [73’12"]


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For most non-specialist collectors such as myself knowledge of the music of Charpentier is likely to be limited to his Messe de minuit and a handful of other works. This Hyperion release offers a welcome opportunity to become acquainted with more examples of his vocal music.

The performances are by the Birmingham-based ensemble Ex Cathedra. This is the third of their discs to have come my way in a relatively short time. I recently gave a warm welcome to their own-label CD of mainly twentieth century Christmas music. Subsequently I acquired their previous Hyperion release, New World Symphonies, devoted to baroque music from Latin America. This latest CD confirms the excellent impression made by those two earlier issues.

The forces employed on this disc (not everyone is involved in every piece) comprise 18 sopranos, 10 altos (male and female), 12 tenors and 11 basses. The instrumentalists include up to four organists (one per choir in the Mass, I assume), four theorbos (similarly disposed, I suspect) a bass viol and a great bass viol and, according to need, a couple of violins and a viola. Between them Charpentier and Jeffrey Skidmore conspire to deploy the musicians to achieve a most stimulating variety of sonorities.

The most economical piece in terms of resources is Salut de la veille des ‘O’. This is a setting of the seven Magnificat antiphons for the seven days leading up to Christmas, known as the "Great O" antiphons. Here Charpentier adds an additional antiphon, ‘O salutaris hostia’. This set of antiphons is thought to have been composed in the early 1690s and may well have been written for the Jesuit church of St. Louis in Paris. If they were composed for such an institution that might explain why most of the set are scored for a small ensemble of no more than three solo male voices and continuo. However, how does one account for the fact that two of the antiphons, ‘O Clavis David’ and ‘O Oriens’ are scored not only for a larger group of instruments but also for four part mixed choir? Unsurprisingly, it is these two antiphons that offer the richer sonorities. All of the settings are brief (the longest lasts 2’35" here) and their relatively plain, direct musical language is impressive.

One of the antiphons, ‘O Rex gentium’ is set for solo haut-contre. The soloist, Andrew Tortise, is a member of the choir, as is the case throughout the programme. He sings with assured fluency and an excellent heady tone that is just right for this style of music. His contribution typifies the high quality of the other solo work on display in this programme.

Le reniement de St Pierre is quite an unusual piece. It is a setting of the part of the gospel narrative that treats of the denial of Christ by St. Peter. Like the antiphons, it employs quite modest forces. Six vocal soloists are used (only three of whose parts are particularly extensive) supported by continuo and a few interjections from the chorus. The setting is taut and dramatic (there are no arias) and concentrates on telling the story rather than commenting on it. The solos are well projected and Jeffrey Skidmore paces the music skillfully. In her excellent notes Shirley Thompson rightly draws particular attention to the concluding chorus in which, as she says, "the vocal lines weave a dense web of counterpoint, full of suspensions and other expressive dissonances." This brief chorus is typical of the compressed, cool but dramatic nature of the setting.

The other two pieces make effective use of spatial separation between groups of singers. The opening setting of Salve Regina employs three choirs, the third of which here comprises three male solo voices. In the score these are described as ‘exules’ or exiles and the more elaborate nature of their music suggests that these parts were intended to be sung by soloists as is done here. This treatment permits a most effective contrast with the more sonorous writing for the two four-part choirs and I’m sure the correct interpretation has been put on Charpentier’s intentions by Jeffrey Skidmore.

The most ambitious and extensive piece is the Messe à quatre chœurs. It is thought that this is an early composition. It may well date from 1692, just after Charpentier returned from Italy, where he had studied with Carissimi. The recording here captures very well the separation between the four choirs, an effect splendidly calculated by Charpentier. It’s a most impressive and enjoyable piece. The first ‘Kyrie’ features some sumptuous choral textures, reminiscent of the Italian baroque, while a more plangent note is introduced for the ‘Christe.’ The second ‘Kyrie’ is majestic. An interesting feature in this movement is the improvised organ interpolations, expertly realised by David Ponsford. (Such interpolations are a feature of the ‘Sanctus’ also.)

The ‘Gloria’ opens with flamboyant soprano solos, one from each choir. The remainder of the movement features a beguiling, ear-catching variety of sonorities as Charpentier makes adroit use of the varied forces at his disposal. This is true also of the ‘Credo’. In that movement there are some excellent male solos in the "Crucifixus" section. Cunningly, Charpentier does not take the obvious course of bringing in full forces at "Et resurrexit" but instead he gradually thickens the textures, bringing in women’s voices only at "Et ascendit". This is but one of many imaginative touches.

Appropriately, textures are especially rich at the start of the ‘Sanctus’. Some may be surprised, as I was, by the unusually sprightly nature of the brief ‘Agnus Dei’. This is a dance-like movement with no hint of a plea for peace. The buoyant mood is carried over into the setting of ‘Domine, salvum fac regem’, a prayer for the preservation of the king that had become something of a convention in Mass settings in late seventeenth century France. This is one of three additions to the Mass setting in this performance. The other two are Marian chants, ‘Assumpta est Maria’, and ‘Ave maris stella’ that are interpolated respectively after the ‘Gloria’ and the ‘Credo’. These are not Gregorian plainchant settings. They are chants composed by Guillaume Gabriel Nivers (c1632-1714) of a type known as plainchant musical. As is explained in the notes, this is a style developed in seventeenth century France that was characterised by simple, mainly syllabic melodies. For my taste it’s not as timeless and atmospheric as traditional plainchant but its inclusion here is interesting and gives a suitable period feel.

In fact the use of this chant is symptomatic of the care that has been taken with these recordings. The singers all sing with what I take to be Gallic pronunciation of the Latin in period style. This pronunciation, though audible, does not attract attention for its own sake. The instrumentalists play, I assume, on period instruments (or copies) and it is clear that a great deal of effort has been taken to get authentic musical texts and to absorb proper period performance practice. It is evident that the performances have been scrupulously prepared yet at no time do they sound studied in any way. On the contrary, enthusiasm and vivid communication are the order of the day, just as was the case with their New World Symphonies disc.

To add to the listener’s pleasure the recorded sound is excellent, with the spatial effects tellingly but naturally achieved. The notes are excellent and are provided in English, French and German, as are the translations of the Latin texts.

An outstanding disc in every way, which I recommend with enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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