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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
three discs would be worth the price of the boxed set alone,
but Virgin have accompanied them by discs of music by two of
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.
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.
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.