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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Messe des Paroisses (1697) [58:29]
Messe des Couvents (1689 or 1690) [50:14]
Ensemble Vox Cantoris/Jean-Christophe Candau
Pierre Bardon (organ)
rec. September, 2007, St-Maximin (Paroisses); January, 2008, La Réole, Gironde (Couvents), France. DDD
SYRIUS SVR141416 [58:29 + 50:14]


Experience Classicsonline

This is a welcome set of two CDs containing a pair of splendid and highly individualistic and atmospheric sacred choral works by François Couperin; they are otherwise unavailable in the current catalogue. That fact, as well as the high quality of the musicianship on this Syrius release, makes this a pair of CDs to be snapped up without waiting.

Couperin was an organist. When only 22 years old he gained the position of organist at St. Gervais in Paris after Michel Richard Delalande - probably Couperin's teacher. Unsurprisingly, the organ is prominent in these two performances. The organ of the Basilique du Couvent Royal of St-Maximin is played with an unmistakably extrovert yet equally sensitive gusto by Pierre Bardon.

Throughout the two masses the organ alternates with plainchant. The chant is sung with equal enthusiasm by the six male-voice Ensemble Vox Cantoris. At first hearing this may be an odd arrangement - somewhat like the intersection of voice and instrument in some contemporary conceptions of much earlier music: the organ does not accompany the voices. Indeed, although the rather brief essays in the CDs' booklet do not say as much, the fact that the there were two different recording dates even suggests that the finished product might have been spliced from two different undertakings: one in the organ's location (St-Maximin) and one at La Réole, Gironde, four months later.

Whether or not this is the case does not detract from the impact of the music. It's grand, has great dignity, depth and beauty; the Offertoire [[CD1 tr.16], for example, stands its own in majesty with much that Bach wrote, almost. There are moments where rhetoric (in the Gloria of the Messe des Paroisses, for example) impress us as much as the melody does. Yet moments later (in the Domine Deus [CD1 tr.10] after the Benedicamus te [CD1 tr.8], for example) the almost vernacular idiom and rhythms of the organ, which becomes much more closely integrated with the plainchant, brings everything back to earth quite unceremoniously. The sinuous and delicate lines of the plainchant are never neglected or overshadowed - even when the organ passages alternate more rapidly with them, as in the "Dialogue sur la Trompette du Grand Clavier" of the Messe des Couvents's Kyrie [CD2 tr.5], for example.

Happily, both organist and singers have fully understood the way these relationships should work; this recording is rich in both formality and humanity. Those were surely the keys to the French Baroque. Amazingly for his age, Couperin clearly knew how not only to balance the claims of liturgical (and textual) integrity and feeling - in the music, harmonies, variations in dynamic and texture. But also to achieve such a balance without sacrificing the richness of the listener's - and, presumably the performer's or celebrant's - experience. This is in a tradition that was picked up again most notably by Messiaen in our own times.

The remarkable achievement of this performance and recording is to have arrived at a blend suitable for our sensibilities (neither dry, nor showy) yet respecting the economy and aspirations to a kind of classical purity, almost, to which it's clear Couperin subscribed - and was able to execute so effortlessly.

It's through variety, restraint, focus and forward momentum that Bardon and Ensemble Vox Cantoris do so closely and successfully reproduce what Couperin surely wanted. They play with a complete lack of self-consciousness and commitment to the heart, not the sound, of the music. To do this is perhaps a slight risk when the music relies as heavily on sequence - as this music does. Nevertheless one feels in strong and sure hands throughout the two performances. The musicians under Candau also celebrate the contrasts: both within each mass and between the two. As Messe des Paroisses is outward-looking, worldly, so Messe des Couvents is mystical. The consistency of a solemn and measured approach to the Messe des Couvents makes a wonderful contrast to the more ceremonial tone with which the Messe des Paroisses unfolds.

The assuredness and gravitas of the playing of each somehow subtly suggests that contrast; but it also provides a tangible rationale for accepting the music in its own right - wherever it unfolds, no matter how unfamiliar we may be with the music.

Mark Sealey



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