William Christie has a considerable – and very well deserved – reputation
as an interpreter of the music of Charpentier. Christie played
a major part in the modern revival of interest in Charpentier’s
work and has a distinguished series of recordings to his
credit, including his Médée (Harmonia
Mundi HMX290 1139/41), David et Jonathas (Harmonia
Mundi HMC90 1289/90), various collections of choral works
(e.g. Harmonia Mundi HMC90 5130), La
Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers (Erato 0630-11913-2)
Nativatem Domini Canticum and Messe
de Minuit (Erato 8573-85820-2 - see review).
This latest recording brings together two mature works by Charpentier;
both were written during the last six years of the composer’s
life – in the period between 1698 and 1704 when he was maître
de musique at the beautiful Gothic church of the Sainte-Chapelle
on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. Every year a special Mass
was celebrated in the royal Palais on the Ile de la
Cité, attended by all the magistrates of the provincial courts
of France. This was usually referred to as la messe Rouge
du palais – it was a ‘Red Mass’ because the magistrates
wore scarlet robes for the occasion. Both of these compositions
were performed at the celebration of la messe Rouge.
Both are elaborate works employing substantial forces – soloists,
mixed voice chorus, organ and an orchestra of strings and
The Judicium Salomonis belongs, in the broadest sense,
in the tradition of oratorio established by Giacomo Carissimi,
whom Charpentier studied in Rome at the end of the 1660s.
Carissimi, indeed, composed an oratorio – or sacred history,
as the French generally called them – on the very same subject.
In more than a few places, Charpentier’s treatment reminds
one of his very real quality as a composer of opera; there
is a powerful theatricality, for example, in his setting
of the dispute between the two mothers over the ‘ownership’ of
a newborn baby – the story which is familiar from verses
16 to 28 of Chapter 3 of the First Book of Kings. Elsewhere
there is some beautiful choral writing, handsomely performed
by Les Arts Florissants under the precisely elegant direction
The Motet pour une longue offrande is particularly
striking in terms of Charpentier’s instrumental writing.
It employs orchestral forces which include strings, made
up of two groups
of violins, one group of violas, one group of cellos, two
flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, organ and continuo. At various
points in this lovely example of the grand motet as
conceived by Charpentier these forces are subdivided in a
variety of groupings. The Motet is in four sections, each
introduced by either an orchestral Prélude or a Symphonie,
all of them, in their different ways, striking and beautiful.
In both works the orchestral and choral contributions are
exemplary in their complementary senses of colour and clarity.
is a richly experienced master of such music and the experience
is evident at every turn. Just one or twice I wondered whether
the music might not have been interpreted with a slightly
more forceful sense of dramatic intensity, but perhaps that
is to put too much weight on the analogies with Charpentier’s
secular music. All of the soloists are highly competent and
assured in their performances – all of their contributions
perfectly adjudged to the tenor of Christie’s interpretations.
Without being in any way exceptional, the recorded sound
is good – though the acoustic isn’t especially ‘churchy’.
Full texts and translations are provided and there is a good
booklet essay (to which I am indebted) by H. Wiley Hitchcock,
one of the leading scholarly authorities on Charpentier,
whose 1982 publication, Les Oeuvres
de Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Catalogue Raisonné, provides
the modern catalogue numbers for the composer’s work.
If you know some of Christie’s other recordings of Charpentier,
or have been fortunate enough to attend a concert performance,
you will surely want to add this latest CD to your collection.
If not, this would be a pretty good place to start.