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Leçons de Ténèbres
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)

Première Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saint* [15:29]
Seconde Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saint** [12:04]
Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Saint*/** [11:08]
Michel-Richard DE LALANDE (1657-1726)

Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Mercredy Saint* [16:05]
Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres du Vendredy Saint** [13:05]
Emma Kirkby* (soprano); Agnès Mellon** (soprano)
Charles Medlam (viola da gamba); Terence Charlston (organ)
rec. September 2005, St Martin's, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England. DDD
BIS CD-1575 [69:12]
Experience Classicsonline


The Leçons de Ténèbres by French composers like Couperin and Lalande are part of a long tradition of setting texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah for performance during Holy Week. The Lamentations were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah to express the sadness at the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. In them the prophet does not hide that these events were the result of the people turning away from God. Therefore when the Christian Church used these Lamentations to express grief over the passion and death of Jesus each part was concluded with the phrase: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God".

The Lamentations became a part of the Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday, taking place in the early hours of the morning. Originally sung to plainchant, from the 15th century onwards composers started to set them polyphonically. The recent recording of the Egidius Kwartet presents some fine examples from the 15th and 16th centuries. At the time of Louis XIV they were not sung in the morning but in the evening before: the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday were sung at Wednesday, the next on Thursday and Friday respectively. This is reflected in the names of the Leçons de Ténèbres: Couperin's settings are written 'pour le Mercredy Saint', for Ash Wednesday, and uses texts originally intended for Maundy Thursday.

The word 'Leçon' derives from the place of the Lamentations within the Matins. The Matins service consisted of three Nocturnes, each containing three Psalms with their respective antiphons, and three lessons (Leçons) with their responsories. The lessons of the first Nocturne were taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The word 'ténèbre' (from the Latin 'tenebrae', darkness) refers to the habit of gradually extinguishing fifteen candles during the service.

Although French composers wrote their settings of the Lamentations for performances in churches and convents, they were mostly sung by singers from the opera, which was closed during Holy Week. This did not meet with universal approval as "they are placed behind a curtain, which they draw back now and again to smile at their supporters in the congregation". The popularity of the performances of the Leçons and of their interpreters had some churches requiring entrance fees.

The settings presented here are quite different. The three Leçons for Ash Wednesday are the only three by Couperin which have come down to us. Whether he wrote a full set of nine is not known; only these three were published in 1714. The first two are for solo voice, the third for two voices, all with basso continuo only. As the tessitura of the second setting is a little lower than the first it is appropriate to use two different singers for the two solo settings. The Hebrew letters which precede every verse are long and virtuosic vocalises, whereas the verses are much more declamatory in character. This reflects the influence of the Italian style: Couperin was the main advocate of the mixture of French and Italian taste in music.

In his settings Michel-Richard de Lalande goes further in text expression: he was even more strongly influenced by the Italian style than Couperin. They were originally sung by his wife and his two daughters who were renowned singers, and praised for the sweetness of their voices and their excellent diction. Only the third Leçons for the three days have survived, and probably in the form of a later reworking of the originals. Italian elements are the use of dacapo, recitative-like passages, changes in rhythm and a vivid continuo part. The settings recorded here end with an identical chaconne on the concluding phrase. Here the word 'Deum' is singled out for a long vocalise.

This recording presents a somewhat unlikely combination of singers. On the one hand Emma Kirkby, whose singing is rather introverted and who hasn't performed much opera and not very much French music. On the other hand Agnès Mellon, who has much experience in secular cantatas and opera, both French and Italian, for instance as a member of William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. It isn't surprising then that she is the most extraverted and dramatic of the two. That is in particular the case in the second Leçon by Lalande. Here and in the second Leçon by Couperin she effectively uses the pretty strong low register of her voice. Emma Kirkby not only has a lighter voice, she also is a little more modest in expression, but definitely sings in a more theatrical style than we may be accustomed to in Lalande’s first Leçon.

Emma Kirkby has previously recorded Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres, alongside Judith Nelson, with Christopher Hogwood and Jane Ryan. The differences between that performance and the present are striking. First of all, here the French pronunciation of the Latin texts is used, in contrast to the Italian pronunciation of the old recording. In addition, the performance here is more extraverted, with a stronger declamation of the text and more dynamic differences. In general these are all improvements. A more theatrical approach seems to me justifiable as long as it doesn't destroy the meditative character of the Leçons de Ténèbres, but this performance stays on the safe side in this respect.

I am less happy with the use of vibrato: it is still limited, but more extensive than in the older recording, and I don't consider that an improvement. Ms Kirkby probably had the feeling this was necessary as Agnès Mellon uses much more vibrato than she herself normally does and she had in a way to adapt her style of singing to that of Ms Mellon. That is certainly the case in Couperin's third Leçon where the ladies seem to have found the middle ground between their own personal styles of singing. The performance is better than what I expected, but I think the blending of the voices is less than ideal.

Having said that the performers certainly have come up with captivating performances which seem to have found the middle between meditation and drama. I recommend this recording which I rate higher than some other recent recordings of Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres. From a strictly stylistic point of view I have my problems with these interpretations in regard to the use of vibrato. After all, it is perfectly possible to sing with great expression while using a minimal vibrato as is shown by the recording of Lalande's three Leçons de Ténèbres by Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha 030).

Johan van Veen



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