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".
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
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