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Charles LEVENS (1689 - 1764)
Te Deum [41:24]
Deus noster refugium [25:54]
Sophie Landy, Sophie Pattey (soprano), Vincent Lièvre-Picard (haute-contre); Sébastien Obrecht (tenor); Sébastien Brohier, Marduk Serrano (baritone); Marcos Loureiro de Sà (bass)
Members of l'Ensemble baroque Orfeo and the Groupe Vocal Arpège, Les Passions/Michel Laplénie
rec. 8-11 November 2007, Chapelle de la Miséricorde, Bordeaux, France. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

It is very likely that you have never heard of Charles Levens. You are in good company: the editors of New Grove haven't either. And in the about forty years that I have been listening to early music I haven't seen his name appear anywhere. It is very likely that none of his compositions has ever been recorded before.

One of the reasons this composer is unknown is the fact that he never worked in Paris or Versailles. Those were the places to be in France in the 17th and 18th century if you wanted to make a good career as a composer. France was different from, for instance, Germany or Italy, in that it was a centralized country and was completely dominated by the capital and the royal court, not only politically, but also culturally. As a result it isn't surprising that the largest part of the French repertoire performed in modern times was written by composers who worked in Paris or Versailles. Music by composers who worked in other cities and regions is relatively little-known.

Charles Levens was born in Marseille and was a choirboy in several choir schools of Provence. In 1718 he started working in Vannes (Brittany) and in 1723 he moved to Toulouse. In 1738 he was appointed head of the choir school of Saint André Cathedral in Bordeaux, where he stayed the rest of his life. He may have worked far from the capital most of the time but his works were well known there. His 'Grands Motets' and other works were performed at the 'Concert Spirituel' in Paris and also at the 'Chapelle Royale' in Versailles. Other performances are documented in Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.

Levens almost exclusively wrote religious music. He felt most at home in the genre of the 'Motet en symphonie', the motet for voices and instruments. The two works on this disc both belong to this genre.

The Te Deum is a text which was often set to music for performances at the occasion of military victories, coronations and the birth of royal heirs. Levens conducted his Te Deum when Maréchal Du Plessis de Richelieu, the town governor, entered Bordeaux on 4 June 1758. At the composer's request the forces of Saint André Cathedral were extended by no less than thirty musicians from outside. This seems to support the use of a pretty large ensemble here, in particular in regard to the choir which consists of 28 singers. The size of the instrumental ensemble is probably a bit too modest by comparison: in particular in the tutti sections the balance could have been better.

Levens' setting of the Te Deum is very impressive, and it seems it made a good impression in his time as well: a performance is documented as late as 1789. It begins not - as one might expect - with a choral section, but rather with an instrumental 'symphonie', followed by a 'récit' for haute-contre with basso continuo, with the strings playing only in the ritornello. After a choral episode the text "tibi omnes angeli" (to thee all the angels [proclaim]) is sung by a trio of the three high voices (two sopranos and haute-contre). Towards the end of the first section there is a sudden shift of rhythm in order to single out the words "Dominus Deus Sabaoth". The haute-contre Vincent Lièvre-Picard has a really fantastic voice, with a bright sound. He distinguishes himself by clear diction and a truly declamatory delivery of the text. He blends very well with the two sopranos in the trio.

The next section is written as a solo for the 'taille', the French term for 'tenor'. He is accompanied by strings with oboes playing colla parte. Levens wrote an ascending figure on the words "majestatis gloriae tuae" (the majesty of thy glory) - one of many examples of direct text illustration. Sébastien Obrecht has a beautiful voice, but tends to be a little too theatrical. He uses a bit too much vibrato and is also pretty loud. To his credit I have to say that in the next section he holds back when he sings with the haute-contre. I would have liked him to hold back in his solos as well, but there is no lack of text expression in his contributions.

The fifth section, Te rex gloria, is set for 'dessus' (soprano). Sophie Landy also uses a little too much vibrato, but her diction is excellent. In the sixth section, Tu ad dexteram, we hear the bass, Marcos Loureiro de Sà, with oboes and bc - another very fine voice. His text delivery is also very good. The most moving and most remarkable section in this Te Deum is the 11th, 'Dignare, Domine'. It is written for three solo voices: haute-contre, tenor and bass. It is full of suspiratio figures, which is explained by the text: "O Lord, deign to keep us from sin this day. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us." It is just brilliantly sung, with a maximum of expression, by the three soloists, whose voices blend perfectly. The last section begins with a fugal passage which returns later. In the closing bars the word "confundar" is repeated many times on a falling figure whereas other voices at the same time repeat "non, non", bringing this splendid composition to an exciting end.

The motet 'Deus noster refugium', a setting of Psalm 45 (46), is no less interesting. Here again the work opens - after a 'symphonie' - with a solo, again for haute-contre. It radiates peace and quiet, reflecting trust in God: "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble". This is all the more telling as the next verses tell what could happen to the earth: "(We will not fear), though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea". The music is fast, agitated, restless, with biting accents. It is fittingly set for three basses with strings and bc; the three singers pull out all the stops. The choir does the same in the next verse which prolongs the previous verse: "Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof". The next section, consisting of verses 5 and 6 ('Fluminis impetus'), is a solo for the haute-contre. The basso continuo very directly depicts the flowing of the water in the first line of this verse: "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God".

The closing section of this motet again brings a surprise. The psalm ends (vs 12) with a return to the beginning, expressing trust in God: "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge". But after this we get verse 10: "He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear insunder; he burneth the charic in the fire". As a result the motet ends in a most dramatic fashion: a sequence of soli and tutti passages over agile and sharply accentuated instrumental parts. It shows again that Levens is anything but a conventional composer and had a great sense of drama and text expression.

The booklet contains all the information one needs. But I hope you are able to read French. The English programme notes and the English translation of the lyrics are pretty much unreadable as they are printed in yellow letters on a white background. Whoever was it that came up with that brilliant idea?

It is very exciting to listen to hitherto unknown music of such a high calibre. I have made some critical remarks about some aspects of this recording, but they don't really matter that much, considering the overall level of performance and the character of the repertoire. This is a very interesting and captivating addition to the catalogue of French music. Levens's compositions are in no way inferior to the better-known motets of, for instance, André Campra. I hope we will get more of his oeuvre in the near future.
Johan van Veen


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