alternatively Crotchet

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Te Deum H146 [22:57]
Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues H 513 [26:51]
Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano); François-Nicolas Geslot (haute-contre); Bruno Boterf (tenor); Jean-Claude Sarragosse (bass) (H146)
Chśur de Chambre de Namur, Les Agrémens (H146), La Fenice (H513)/Jean Tubéry
rec. September 2004, Église du prieuré, Cons-La-Grand-Ville (H146); October 2004, Église abbatiale, Pontigny (H513)
RICERCAR RIC245 [49:50]

It took some time before Charpentier became one of the most popular composers of the baroque era. Nowadays his music is frequently performed and recorded. In the past hardly any attention was paid to his oeuvre. The exception was his setting of the Te Deum which was probably the first of his works to become a part of the active repertoire of baroque sacred music. The first recording dates from 1953, and many have followed since. Its popularity was increased by the fact that its prelude was used as the tune of Eurovision, the organisation of European radio and TV corporations. This disc brings another recording of the piece; this time a little different from others. I consider it to be one of the best available.
The text of the Te Deum was usually set for state occasions. It was especially to sing the praise of kings, who in the baroque era were considered the representatives of God on earth. Charpentier wrote at least six settings, four of which have been preserved. As most Te Deums this contains parts for trumpets and drums. It is generally thought to be written for the occasion of the victory of France at Steinkerk, on 3 August 1692. The key of D major is highly appropriate, as it is characterised by Charpentier himself as "joyful and very warlike". The text contains strong contrasts: for instance, a passage about the Last Judgement is followed by prayers for God’s mercy. These contrasts are fully exploited by the composer, both in the scoring and the affetti. Contrasts in music were something Charpentier was specifically interested in: "the very diversity is what creates perfection". There can't be any doubt that what we see here is the influence of his teacher, Giacomo Carissimi, who was especially famous for his oratorios which had a strongly dramatic character.
In what respect is this recording different from others? In the booklet Jean Tubéry writes: "It seems to us that it is time to pick up the challenge and to record the famous Te Deum for the first time with a true baroque trumpet, and not with an instrument that had been denatured by the addition of holes that soften its musical personality. We must of course accept that there are pitches that are not at all what the modern ear would expect, and that the instrument's intonation has much more in common with the hunting horn than with the modern symphonic trumpet". If one is acquainted with the sound of the natural trumpet which is often used today in baroque orchestras, the difference is not spectacular, but the trumpets here definitely sound a little spicier than usual. In addition the singing of choir and soloists is splendid. The soloists also blend very well with the choir, which is important as a number of solo passages are totally integrated in the tutti sections. I wonder, though, why only two violins are used. I think it is reasonable to assume an occasion like the celebration of a military victory would have taken place with a somewhat larger orchestra than the one used here.
What makes this recording even more interesting is the second work: the 'Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues'. It is a much less well-known work, although it was recorded fairly recently by Musica Antiqua Köln (Archiv). For a long time the reasoning behind it has been a mystery, but the booklet refers to the research of the American musicologist Patricia Ranum who discovered why this work was composed in this way. In April 1674 the convent of Notre Dame de la Mercy was preparing for the canonisation the Spanish bishop St. Pierre Pascual. The organ which obviously should be played at the occasion wasn't yet ready. The problem wasn't to be solved easily as the 'Ceremoniale' of the order forbade the use of other instruments. A way out was nevertheless found: one of the articles of the Ceremoniale said that instruments could be used if the ceremony was sponsored by a lay-person. Madame and Mademoiselle de Guise were willing to act as sponsors, and as Charpentier was in their service it was he who was asked to compose the music for the occasion. The Mass was first performed on 15 April of that year. In this mass Charpentier aimed to imitate the sound of the organ. That is reflected in the instrumentation, which Charpentier specified in detail. These instructions have been followed as closely as possible in this recording. Most instrumental groups are divided into four or five different parts. "Recorders, transverse flutes, oboe, cromorne and the indispensable serpent all appear in various and different clefs, leaving us to suppose that these instruments were played in families, while contemporary usage was to double the dessus and the bass string parts." As a result we find here transverse flutes in two different clefs, recorders in three – there is one passage where Charpentier requires four bass recorders – and oboes also in three. The 'cromorne' is interesting. It’s a term we know from the classical French organ. It has nothing to do with the renaissance crumhorn: rather it is a kind of bass oboe. In most recordings where such an instrument is required its part is played on the bassoon, but for this recording the instrument was reconstructed on the basis of period illustrations. It produces a quite spectacular sound, which is very close to the 'cromorne' stop of French organs.
Unfortunately this work isn't complete: some sections of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are missing. The gaps have been filled by instrumental pieces from Charpentier's oeuvre. The plainchant is taken from the 'Graduale Romanum', published by Paschal and Berthod in Paris in 1666. It is sung by three members of the choir, and mostly accompanied by the serpent, a common practice in France well into the 19th century.
In this alternatim mass Charpentier certainly doesn't belie his musical education in Rome: there are some very strong dissonances here and there, and there are quite large contrasts here as in the Te Deum.
The performance by La Fenice is excellent and the sound the instruments produce is gorgeous. Much more than in Musica antiqua Köln's recording, Charpentier's ideal of trying to imitate the organ is revealed here.
The booklet is very informative, and contains a list of performers, although it mentions only one trumpeter in the Te Deum. I would like to know who plays the other trumpet part. Unfortunately the translator of the programme notes has made a grave error in the passage about the baroque trumpet: "It had, of course, no valves, but instead had a number of holes pierced in the instrument, these were similar to those added by the instrument makers and musicians of the 20th century …". But in reality Tubéry states the opposite: the trumpets of the 17th century didn't have valves, "pas davantage" (nor) holes as they were added in the 20th century. Because of this error Tubéry's reasoning doesn't make any sense to those who only read the English translation of the programme notes.
In reality Tubéry's notes on performance practice are illuminating and make a lot of sense. I would like to quote the last lines, with which I fully agree. "'To please, to instruct and to convince' are the three principles of rhetoric, with which the baroque period was filled. To emphasise the first to the detriment of the two others would be to relegate this musical language to a purely decorative function, depriving it of the communicative and creative essence that is undoubtedly the reason for its vitality in our culture today". This pretty well sums up the character of the interpretations on this disc which is the reason I strongly recommend the disc.
Johan van Veen


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