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Marc Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704) Leçons de Ténèbres: Office du Mecredi Saint
Psalm 69 (plainchant)
First Lesson, H120
First Response, H117 Seniores populi
Second Lesson, H138
Second Response, H126 Tristis est anima mea
Third Lesson, H141
Third Response, H131 Ecce quomodo
Psalm 50, Miserere Mei H173
Office du Jeudi Saint
Prelude a 4 in G minor, H528
Psalm 14 (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
First Lesson, H121 (De Lamentatione Jeremiae Jerusalem from H120)
First Resposne, H144 Omnes amici mei
Prelude en D minor a 3, H510
Second Lesson, H139 (Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt Jerusalem from H138)
Second Response, H128 Velum temple
Third Lesson H136 (Jerusalem from H135)
Third Response Tenebrae factae sung (plainchant)
Prelude a 4 in F major, H521
Miserere (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
Office du Vendredi Saint
Psalm 26 (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
First Lesson, H99 with instrumental ritornello H100
First reponse, H133 Tanquam ad latronem
Second Lesson, H140
Second Response, H130 Jerusalem surge
Third Lesson, H95
Third Response (plainchant)
Psalm 50 Miserere (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730) – Leçons des morts (1st, 3rd and 4th lessons only); Sonata en trio no. 1 en mi mineur; Dialogus poenitentis animae cum Deo
Nicolas CLERAMBAULT (1676-1749) – Panis angelicus C131; Exultet omnium C112; Domine salvum C152; Domine C158; O deliciis affluens C109; Magnificat C136; Salve Regina  C114; O piissima, o Sanctissima C135; Domine salvum C157
Catherine Greuillet (dessus) (disc1)
Caroline Pelon (dessus) (disc 1)
Sandrine Piau (dessus) (disc 2)
Agnes Mellon (dessus) (disc 3)
Veronique Gens (dessus) (disc 4)
Gérard Lesne (alto)
Lenaick Gicquel (haut-contre) (disc 2)
Ian Honeyman (taille) (discs 2, 3)
Etienne Fouss (taille) (disc 2)
Frederic Richard (taille) (disc 2)
Mark Padmore (taille) (disc 5)
Christopher Purves (basse-taille) (disc 1)
Peter Harvey (basse-taille) (disc 2)
Paul Haddad (basse-taille) (disc 2)
Jacques Bona (basse-taille) (disc 3)
Josep-Miquel Ramon I Monzo (basse) (disc 5)
Il Seminario Musicale
Discs originally published 1993 - 2000
VIRGIN VERITAS 7243 3 82013 2 4 [5 CDs: 63.54 + 66.16 + 70.56 + 53.40 + 63.10]

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The service of Tenebrae was originally celebrated at Matins during Holy Week; this took place at around 3 a.m., hence the name tenebrae (darkness). The service was divided into three Nocturns, each of which consisted of three psalms, three anthems and three lessons followed by responses. The lessons are taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

In late 17th century France, it became popular for composers to provide musical settings of these lessons. The popularity of the service caused it to be moved to the afternoon of the previous day and the service was particularly observed in convents. The first musical settings come from such composers are Bouzignac (before 1643) and Michel Lambert (c. 1660). Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed numerous settings in the period 1670 to 1704 and Francois Couperin composed his settings in the period 1713-1717 (just three surviving Lessons are all that we have of Couperin’s output). These French composers developed a particular genre of these settings, using just a few solo voices and continuo, setting the Hebrew letters, which prefix the verses, as long melismas and ending each lesson with the words Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God).

But of course, besides providing settings of the lessons themselves, composers also provided music for the responses and psalms in the services. Charpentier’s catalogue lists 54 items relating to the Lessons and Responses. The frustrating thing for a performer being that few cycles survive complete and there are some fine pieces which survive as stand alone works.

For the first three discs in this box set, French alto Gerard Lesne and his group Il Seminario Musicale have put together reconstructions of the tenebrae services, each disc devoted to a single day: disc 1 - Office du Mecredi Saint, disc 2 – Office du Jeudi Saint; disc 3 – Office du Vendredi Saint. By doing this, Lesne has done listeners an immense service; side by side we can hear Charpentier’s settings of the Lessons, Responses and Psalms in the order that they were supposed to be heard, rather than as objets trouvés embedded in other programmes. Though Lesne does use Charpentier’s setting of the Miserere (Psalm 50), he also uses plainchant psalm settings, imaginatively alternating them with 17th century faux-bourdons, some by Charpentier himself. The result is to place the service in context whilst ensuring that even the plainchant is filtered through a 17th century ear.

The music mainly dates from the 1690s and Lesne seems to have taken pieces from various cycles; I get the impression that the choice was governed not only by scholarship, but by the desire to create a harmonious whole with a varied balance of voice types as soloist. Understandable on a disc even if it is not a reflection of what might have happened at a real service.

So far so impressive! But these discs are from one of Virgin Veritas’s black boxes; 5 CDs for the bargain price of something like £15. So we are presented with over 5 hours of superb music making, with just a 10 page bi-lingual booklet for company; no texts and precious little explanation about why Lesne made the choices he did. So all we can do is sit back and listen and enjoy.

And there is much to enjoy on these discs. Each one was recorded at a slightly different time, with differing singers, but Lesne’s seems to have been the governing personality; at least I deduce so from the consistency of the performances.

Lesne himself possesses a hauntingly beautiful voice of a type which seems completely suited to this style of music. I must confess that I found his performances completely entrancing. He has a very focussed voice with a good sense of line and little vibrato; his is not one of the very feminine counter-tenor voices which are becoming fashionable and as such, not everyone will like it. But in this music he is in his element, flexible and nuanced, I wished that he did more on the discs as he brings to this music great sensibility combined with intensity.

For, though Lesne does a substantial amount of solo singing, he is simply the first amongst equals and he is able supported by the teams of soloists which include such distinguished names as Sandrine Piau and Agnes Melon.

On the first disc, Peter Purves sings his solos, the first lesson and third lessons, with a fine warm voice and good direct tone, though I could have wished he sounded a little more vivid. Sopranos Catherine Greuillet and Caroline Pelon get to perform the stunning duet response Tristis est anima mea with its delicious suspensions.

On the second disc, Peter Harvey sings the first response with a good focussed voice and tenor Ian Honeyman contributes a flexibly sung first response Omnes amici mei. On this disc Sandrine Piau is rather under used, contributing mainly to the ensemble items; the second response and the third lesson are both written for vocal ensemble. The second response is in fact remarkably dramatic, breaking the mood of serene contemplation which prevails on these discs. 

For the third disc Agnes Mellon contributes a beautifully shapely account of the first lesson and Jacques Bona is vivid and bright toned in the first response, tanquam ad latronem. Lesne is on strong form for the second lesson and the second response, Jerusalem surge is sung by the three men (Lesne, Honeyman and Bona) with a wonderfully rich sound. For the third lesson, with its distinctive chromatic introduction, Lesne and Mellon join together for a well blended duet.

Lesne and his fellow soloists, well supported by Il Seminario Musicale, give eminently civilised readings of these Charpentier pieces, notable for their poised intimacy. Lesne’s readings are very much in the style of personal, private devotions rather than grand public works; which suits these pieces very well.

These three discs would be worth the price of the boxed set alone, but Virgin have accompanied them by discs of music by two of Charpentier’s contemporaries.

Disc 4 is devoted to music by Sebastien de Brossard. Brossard wrote music at Strasbourg Cathedral and at Meaux. His Leçons des Morts are settings of texts from the Book of Job and were intended to be used in Masses for the Dead. Brossard sets the texts for just soprano and alto and continuo, but provides a surprising amount of variety of texture. For some, unexplained, reason we are given only the 1st, 3rd and 4th Lessons, The music though is neither spectacular nor showy; rather it conveys itself through a poised, civilised discussion. Lesne and Veronique Gens blend nicely in the duets and convey the music well. The disc closes with a dialogue in which a penitent soul appears before God. A piece which might be described as charming, lively and civilised, all qualities which seem to apply to all the Brossard pieces on the disc.

The final disc in the set is devoted to motets by Clérambault, for three male voices (Lesne, Mark Padmore and Josep-Miquel Ramon I Monzo) accompanied by flute, violins and continuo. The presence of a flute gives an indication of the rather fashionable nature of Clérambault’s music. He combines charming with a certain melodic felicity, these are pieces which sooth the soul and do not aspire to sophistication. And in performances as enchanting as these, they cannot help but be welcome; the Salve Regina I found particularly memorable. Padmore’s mellifluous tenor is particularly welcome.

Whilst you might not have bought the Brossard or the Clérambault discs separately, this wonderfully priced boxed set means that not only is Lesne’s artistry easily available, but we can come to appreciate the splendours of the smaller scale 17th century French motets.

Robert Hugill 



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