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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Marc Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 – 1704) Salve Regina à trois choeurs H24; Beatus vir H221; Le Reniement de Saint Pierre H424; Stabat Mater H15; Te Deum H147; Transfige dulcissime Jesu H251
Harmony of Voices, Sweden (Svenska Vokalharmonin) Kristina Lindgård (basse de violon) Sven Åberg (theorbo) Peter Lönnerberg (organ) Johan Lindström (organ) Fredrik Malmberg (harpsichord, conductor) Recorded 29 Sept 2003, 2 Oct 2003, 24 Oct 2003 in Hölö kyrka and Oscarskyrkan Stockholm
PROPRIUS PRCD 2031 [57.08]


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Charpentier had quite a long career as a composer, from about 1670 to his death in 1704. During this time his was famously excluded from areas of Royal patronage by Lully, but Charpentier wrote for a number of important patrons including the Duchess de Guise and the Dauphin. This lower profile meant that he was perhaps freer to experiment than he might have been if he had been constrained by the restrictions of working for the Royal court. His centenary this year means that we are getting the opportunity to hear a greater variety of his music recorded on CD. This current one is from a young Swedish choir, comprising just 14 professional singers; they have been chosen as the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s artists in residence for 2004/2005.

In the 1660s Charpentier spent several years studying in Rome with Carissimi. In his motet Salve Regina à trios choeurs Charpentier gives a masterly demonstration of his understanding of the Italian style of composing for multiple choirs; in this case two choirs of mixed voices and one choir of men’s voices. Following an introduction based on the relevant plainchant, Charpentier sets the text as an ardent prayer to the Virgin for her help and supplication. Harmony of Voices makes a lovely clean sound with great attention to individual lines; each voice is given great clarity. The resulting chamber music feel is to their great credit. The choir use French baroque pronunciation, but their clarity and cleanliness of sound mean that they bring a welcome whiff of Northern air to the music. Malmberg seems to favour steady tempi. His version of the motet is longer than Jeffrey Skidmore’s recording with Ex Cathedra. But this does not mean that Malmberg is self indulgent, more that the slightly slower tempi reinforce the neo-classical purity and clarity of the performance. Skidmore’s group, on the other hand, give this motet a rather larger scale, choral performance which is just as thrilling in its own way.

Where required, the soloists in the motets are drawn from the choir which means that we get a subtle variety of style as the soloists vary. In Beatus Vir some solo passages, at the works in saeculum saeculi for instance, the singer’s passage work is a little smudged which rather detracts from the overall pristine feel of the performance. Also in Beatus Vir the choir indulge in some rather unsuccessful, odd ornamentation when the works speak of gnashing of teeth.

Le Reniement de St. Pierre is one of Charpentier’s 35 oratorios. It dramatises St. Peter’s three fold denial of Jesus, beginning with the Last Supper and ending with Peter’s bitter tears. It is a lovely work and it receives a beautifully rich and subtle performance from Harmony of Voices. The use of a relatively small group of singers means that there is less contrast between the choral and solo passages. As in the comparison with the Stabat Mater this gives the piece a welcome chamber feel; whereas Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra give a fine performance in a more choral manner.

Charpentier’s Stabat Mater was written for the nuns of Port Royal. Performed fully, it consists of 20 verses sung alternately by soloist and choir of women’s voices. Harmony of Voices give a suave performance of 10 verses, but include men’s voices which I think deprives the work of the hypnotic quality it would have had when the nuns performed it. Rather than one of his larger scale settings, Harmony of Voices perform a small scale setting of the Te Deum which was probably written for a service. They conclude with a long, reflective motet Transfige dulcissime Jesu which was written to be performed at the elevation.

This is an attractive programme of Charpentier’s smaller scale works performed with stunning clarity by a talented new Swedish ensemble. Two of the pieces (Salve Regina and Le Reniement de Saint Pierre) are common to both this disc and that of Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore. But Ex Cathedra’s programme includes the Mass for 4 Choirs and the Salut de veille des ‘O’ so that in an ideal world one should possess both discs.

Robert Hugill

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