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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (c.1643-1704)
Leçons de Ténèbres

Agnès Mellon (soprano); Gérard Lesne (counter-tenor); Ian Honeyman (tenor); Jacques Bona (baritone)
Il Seminario Musicale/Gérard Lesne
rec. 1993 and 1995 – no further details given. DDD.
VIRGIN VERITAS 5 22021 2 [66:12+70:55]
Experience Classicsonline

 

CD 1

Office du Jeudi Saint (Tenebræ for Maundy Thursday) [66:12]
Prelude a 4 in g minor, H528
Antiphon Habitabit in tabernaculo
Psalm 14 (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
First Lesson, H121 (De Lamentatione Jeremiæ: Cogitavit Dominus)
Jerusalem, convertere from H120
First Response, H144 Omnes amici mei
Prelude in d minor a 3, H510
Second Lesson, H139 (Lamed. Matribus suis dixerunt Jerusalem from H138)
Second Response, H128 Velum temple
Third Lesson H136 (Jerusalem convertere from H135)
Third Response Tenebrae factae sunt (plainchant)
Prelude a 4 in F major, H521
Psalm 50 (51) Miserere (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
Sandrine Piau (soprano); Gérard Lesne (counter-tenor); Ian Honeyman (tenor); Peter Harvey (baritone)
CD 2

Office du Vendredi Saint (Tenebræ for Good Friday) [70:55]
Antiphon: Astiterunt reges terræ
Psalm 26 (plainchant and faux-bourdon)
First Lesson, H99 with instrumental ritornello H100
First reponse, H133 Tanquam ad latronem
Second Lesson for solo voice, H140
Second Response, H130 Jerusalem surge
Third Lesson for two voices, H95
Third Response Vinea mea electa (plainchant)
Psalm 50 Miserere (plainchant and faux-bourdon)

These two CDs are taken from the three discs of Charpentier settings of Tenebræ included in a 5-CD collection reviewed and recommended by RH in 2005. The remaining disc, of Ténèbres pour Mercedi Saint, is available separately, albeit still at full price (5 45107 2) and the three discs of Tenebræ are available together on 5 61483 2 for around £25.

The services of Matins and Lauds in the Roman rite for the last three days of Holy Week, the so-called Sacred Triduum are – or were before being replaced by the vernacular liturgy – beautiful and complex. Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday consist of psalms with antiphons, readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and versicles and responsories related to and reflecting upon the events of those days. Over the centuries they have proved fruitful inspiration for music, even in post-reformation England, where the Book of Common Prayer continued to prescribe readings from Lamentations and settings of them, often in Latin, continued to be sung in cathedrals and collegiate churches.

It is a human tendency to anticipate and the services of Holy Week and Easter have been especially susceptible to anticipation, so that many Roman Catholic and Anglican churches often used to celebrate the first Mass of Easter during the afternoon or even the morning of the previous day, Holy Saturday. Even now the Paschal Fire is often kindled well before midnight.

Matins in monastic usage is a night office, but the tradition arose in France in the late 16th and 17th centuries of anticipating the Matins of the Sacred Triduum on the evening of the previous day, often in a dramatic fashion. A hearse of candles behind the altar would be extinguished one by one until a single candle was left alight, to signify Christ, the Light of the World – hence the name Tenebræ, in French Ténèbres, meaning ‘darkness’ – and the psalms, antiphons, readings and responsories would be performed in a mixture of chant and more elaborate settings with instruments. So prevalent was this practice that it took a Papal Decree in 1955 to restore these services to their proper liturgical places.

Charpentier composed a large number of settings for texts associated with Tenebræ, rather than complete settings of the office, all of them works of great beauty and most of them intense, almost operatic. From these Gérard Lesne has on this recording put together an assemblage from different collections to represent what might have been performed – not quite the kind of liturgical reconstruction for which Paul McCreesh has become famous, but a feasible representation. It certainly works for me; I tend to rate Charpentier even more highly than Couperin, Lully or Rameau, but I imagine that this programme would work for all but the greatest purist.

The first CD offers selections from Tenebræ of Maundy Thursday, actually Matins of Good Friday, the second from Tenebræ of Good Friday, actually Matins of Holy Saturday. Unfortunately, no texts are included and even the incipits of the readings from Lamentations are not always provided, so it is difficult to follow how these selections fit into the liturgy. My post-1955 Holy Week Manual is not much help, since the psalms in particular were re-allocated when Matins was returned to its proper place. Thus, the antiphon Habitabit in tabernaculo and Psalm 14, Domine quis habitabit, are transferred in the restored rite from Good Friday to the opening of Matins for Holy Saturday. Conversely, the antiphon Astiterunt reges terræ and Psalm 2 to which it applies (only the antiphon is included here) open Matins of Good Friday post 1955, not those of Holy Saturday. Even I, as something of an erstwhile liturgical expert, find what we are offered hard to follow. We really do need more help than is provided here: perhaps EMI/Virgin could have obliged by offering something on their website.

Of course, we could just sit back and enjoy some beautiful music, excellently performed and well recorded, but I want more than that. The general listener is more likely to be confused than helped by what information is offered in the booklet: what, for example, is faux-bourdon, employed as we are informed for the psalm settings? And what is the Bréviaire de G.G.Nivers from which some of the settings are taken?

Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (c.1631-1714) was an older contemporary of Charpentier, who provided modified versions of the chants associated with the psalms in the Breviary, the book of daily liturgical offices. Faux-bourdon or falsobordone refers to a manner of chanting the psalms not unlike Anglican chant – it’s actually immensely more complicated than that: for full details look in Grove or the Oxford Companion to Music.

Even the voices of the singers are indicated in French and not translated into English – I’ve corrected that in my heading. Not many Anglophones are likely to know what a basse-taille voice is. I know that the music originated with EMI France, but it’s the usual case of spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar, and I fear it may put prospective listeners off. Actually, the notes in French are unrelated to those in English and German and, though shorter, slightly more informative.

I can’t imagine better performances: singing, direction and accompaniment are excellent – Lesne himself is one of the vocal treasures as well as directing the performances – and the recording is equally first-class. Il Seminario Musicale is a small group; its personnel changed slightly between the two recording dates, but both sets of performers offer discreet and effective support.

All this, and at such a reasonable price, is sure to encourage purchasers who have forgiven the inadequacies of the documentation – and even I can do that for the sake of obtaining such wonderful music – to investigate some of the other Veritas twofers advertised in the booklet, not least the same performers’ versions of sacred music by Vivaldi and Galuppi (5 62413 2).

Some reviewers of the original issue found the inclusion of plainsong intrusive. I’m all for including as much of Charpentier’s music as possible, but I find the alternation of the two forms illuminating, especially considering the elaborate decoration of the Hebrew letters in Charpentier’s setting – shouldn’t these properly be called melismata, not melismas, as per the booklet – against the comparative simplicity of chant. Such contrasts were, of course, inherent in the practice of the time: settings of the Magnificat and other canticles often alternate verses in chant. Allegri’s Miserere is the best known example of this form of alternation.

In compiling the programme, Gérard Lesne has been careful to choose contemporary forms of chant, from a Roman collection of 1650 on CD1 and from the Nivers Breviary on CD2. ‘Gregorian’ chant or plainsong is not the timeless creation that most of us think it to be: it has been sung in many different ways during the centuries.

If you’re looking for more Charpentier settings of music for Tenebræ, your next stop might usefully be another inexpensive 2-CD set, on the Warner Apex label: not quite such first-rate performances, but there are very few items of overlap between the two collections (2564 61742 2). But be sure to obtain this Virgin Veritas issue first. Forget all those collections which claim to offer the most relaxing music of all time, go for this instead – and the recent Universal release of Chant: Music for Paradise, UCJ176 6016 which I recently made Recording of the Month, while you’re about it. If you still want more Charpentier, Harmonia Mundi have just reissued William Christie’s first-class account of his famous Te Deum at mid price (HMG50 1298 with Litanies and Missa Maria assumpta est) and you can’t go wrong with the recordings of Charpentier by Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Nicquet on various Naxos and Glossa CDs.

Brian Wilson

 


 




 


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