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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Messe Pour le Port-Royal
Veni Creator, H.69 [2:39]
Messe pour le Port Royal, H.5 [39:13]
Laudate Dominum, H.182 [2:18]
Ave Maris Stella, H.63 [7:32]
Flores o Gallia, H.342 [4:20]
Magnificat pour le Port Royal, H.81 [11:27]
Michel Chapuis (organ);
Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr;
Sylvie Moquet (bass viol);
Emmanuel Mandrin (director)
rec. 1997 (? – see penultimate paragraph),
France. DDD
E8912 [69:05]

The Port-Royal was a refounded Cistercian convent (from the thirteenth century) in Paris. One of Charpentier’s sisters, Marie, was a nun there, which is the best we can do now to explain the composer’s connection with it. We can assume, though, that the works to be heard on this appealing CD were first performed in the splendid little Baroque church in the convent. They were written in the mid-1680s, after a number of moves and vicissitudes for the communities of Port-Royal… by that time there were two sites for the establishment; senior figures had been seriously ill and relations with ‘competing’ factions of the wider Catholic church establishment were confused, or worse.

It is possible to see the sublime, gentle, persuasive and intimate music on this CD as a balm to respond to these troubles. It is lovely music and can be appreciated without this background. Yet there is a restraint and focus both in Charpentier’s writing and in the concentrated, almost inward-looking, performances of Chapuis, Moquet and Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr (a choir of ten women’s voices) under Emmanuel Mandrin which make better sense when one knows that this music was written for specific people in specific circumstances. And that such a response by Charpentier, if a little uncharacteristic, couldn’t but have provided solace to those who first performed and heard it. It is in this spirit that these unself-conscious and enthusiastic performers have approached it – with very pleasing results.

The main and longest work, the Mass, is unusual in that, as written, it consisted of both the five movements from the ‘Ordinary’ (Kyrie, Gloria etc.) and interleaved sections for Saints Francis and Margaret, the first names – respectively – of the then Archbishop of Paris and abbess at Port-Royal. For this recording, Mandrin includes the movements in honour of St Francis… an Introit (which precedes the Kyrie), a Gradual (after the Gloria), an Offertory (before the Sanctus) and a Communion just before the Domine Salvium (H.290, a prayer for Louis XIV). Also added is Charpentier’s O Salutaris hostia (H.126); although neither this nor H.290 is listed separately as such in the accompanying booklet or ‘sleeve’.

The mass is largely monodic and unusually austere for Charpentier. One senses a mood of sobriety; there is a lack of flourish and absence of celebration. This dourness is accentuated by the prominent role for the organ (on this recording it’s one in Houdan, rebuilt by the organ maker to the king, from the 1730s). Its entries and improvised couplets were left to the seventeenth century organist. What an inspiring, dignified and quietly moving job Michel Chapuis does on this recording. The Magnificat also has a wonderful organ solo at the very end, which is worth waiting the whole nearly seventy minutes of this CD for!

The rest of the performers, too, show measured ardour, perceptive clarity and an underplayed expressiveness, which seems as though it’d be close to what Charpentier would have wished for, had he been directing.

There’s a simplicity to their approach, which conceals great control and self-awareness. It’s evident not only in the mass, but the other pieces: the Laudate Dominum (H.182) is brief but fittingly fulsome; the Ave Maris Stella (H.63) alternates organ and voices to great effect; Veni Creator (H.69) makes a splendid opening to this CD… the sense of a light shining in a dimmed church; Flores o Gallia (H.342) in praise of St. Teresa is strangely Italianate and makes striking use of dissonance.

Lastly, the Magnificat (H.81) achieves its melodic impact by a ‘reduced’ texture and by the use of fauxbourdon. In fact, the relationship between soloists and chorus makes for a spectacular tension that supports well the liturgical function of this piece. There is nothing perfunctory or ‘worn’ about the way these players and singers approach this music. It’s a performance with a freshness born, perhaps, of a detachment from the music analogous to the almost impersonal power with which the composer conceived it. Light there is: but Charpentier is standing behind the torch rather than in its light.

The recording is appropriately intimate and unshowy. Only the sole male voice, ‘celebrant’ Jean-Luc Rayon, might have benefited from being more closely miked. One can do no more than infer from an acknowledgement in the liner notes of the co-operation from the relevant ‘Département’ that the recording – which appears to be the first of a series – was made at the 1996 ‘Jeux d’Orgues en Yvelines’ festival under the auspices of ADIAM 78 (Association d'Information et d'Action Musicales et chorégraphiques des Yvelines).

The booklet contains useful descriptions of the works, though one would have welcomed more on the musicians. The texts are reproduced in French, Latin, English and Spanish. If you want to extend your collection of French Baroque choral music, add to what you have of Charpentier’s in particular and/or just want to enjoy outstanding choral music performed with conviction, then you can safely buy this CD.

Mark Sealey 



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