Edward Higginbottom entitles his liner-notes in the booklet of the present disc "A neglected master: Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c.1643-1704)". It is true that he was not immediately recognized when French music under the ancien régime was discovered, unlike Jean-Baptiste Lully or Michel-Richard de Lalande. However, since his music has begun being explored - and the American-born William Christie played a key role in this development - his music has become quite popular. Higginbottom quotes Charpentier's contemporary Sébastien Brossard who wrote that "in the opinion of all true connoisseurs he had always been considered the most profound and the most knowledgeable of modern composers". It seems that his opinion is shared by many performers and music-lovers today.
The Charpentier discography is quite large, although it seems unlikely that all his compositions are available on disc. There is still a lot of work to do, and that makes every disc devoted to him most welcome. It is a shame that often the same works are recorded. I don't know whether those on this disc have been recorded before. The oratorio Caecilia virgo et martyr certainly has, but I am not sure about the two grands motets. Together they offer a good picture of Charpentier's qualities.
His oratorios reflect the influence of the Italian style. Between 1666/67 and 1670 he was in Rome. It is often claimed that he studied with Giacomo Carissimi but there seems to be no firm evidence for this. However, Charpentier was clearly under the impression of his compositions, and that comes especially to the fore in his oratorios. This form was virtually unknown in France, and Charpentier was the only composer who wrote such pieces. When he died in 1704 the oratorio died with him. His oratorios are no large-scale pieces as we know them from the 18th century, nor even comparable with the Italian oratorios of the late 17th century which share many features with opera. It is telling that some oratorios are known as historia or motets. These are pieces for a relatively small venue, probably performed in the Hôtel de Guise, the residence of Marie de Lorraine, known as Mademoiselle de Guise, the last representative of a wealthy and once powerful family.
She had lived with her family in exile in Italy, and that explains why Charpentier's Italian leanings went down very well with her. He had almost complete freedom to compose as he wished. Caecilia martyr et virgo is about the famous antique story of Cecilia who doesn't want to give up her Christian faith and is condemned to death by the Roman governor Almachius. A chorus of angels sings about her happiness in heaven, and the closing chorus includes an obbligato part for organ, the instrument which is especially associated with her in her capacity as patron saint of music. The oratorio is in two parts, both preceded by a prelude. In the first part we hear a dialogue between Cecilia, her lover Valerianus and the latter's brother Tiburtius. The second part circles around the confrontation between Cecilia and Almachius. This obviously is the most dramatic part, but that doesn't quite come out here. Patrick Edmond could have made more of his role as Almachius. When he sings "Quickly, executioner, seize the accused and kill her!" this is a bit understated and he hardly makes Almachius the frightful individual he should be. Robyn Allegra Parton sings in the worst operatic tradition, with a big wobble which is out of place here and hard to accept. There is too little interaction between the protagonists, and the tempi are generally too slow.
It is interesting to note that the other parts in this oratorio - and in the other two items - are performed by boys and men. Generally speaking this is in line with what was common practice in the 17th and most of the 18th centuries. However, there are exceptions, and one of them is the Guise household. We know the names of the singers of her chapel, and there were no boys in it, but rather female sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. As the oratorio dates from Charpentier's time in her service it seems likely that it was performed in her estate. The chorus of angels is for four high voices, and could well have been set this way for the four female singers in the chapel.
The other two pieces fall into the grand motet category which was frequently performed in Paris and especially at the court of Louis XIV. A grand motet is a piece for solo voices, a choir and an orchestra, and is comparable with the English verse anthem. There are mostly five solo parts and the orchestra is divided into five parts as well, with the characteristic scoring for dessus de violon, haute-contres de violon, tailles de violon, quintes and basses de violon. The most expressive of the two is the setting of Psalm 129 (130), De profundis clamavi. It was written for the funeral ceremonies on the occasion of the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683. The five-part strings are extended by two transverse flutes, and the solo parts are divided over two quartets. The choir is in six rather than five parts, as the upper part is split. The solo episodes are of a declamatory character; this way the text is communicated to maximum effect. A good example is the closing episode of the third section: "If thou, O Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss: O Lord, wo may abide it?"
This motet was probably performed in a church and that also goes for the more modest setting of Psalm 15 (Conserva me, Domine), dating from 1699. At that time Charpentier was director of music of the Sainte-Chapelle. That means that the use of boys' voices is more plausible than in the oratorio. The trebles of the New College Choir do a very fine job here: they produce a beautiful sound in ensemble, but several of them give good accounts of the various solo parts they have to sing. There is one issue of concern, though, and that is the fact that some of them use quite a lot of vibrato. I know that vibrato is part of their training which sets this choir - as some others - apart from choirs which operate in the 'Victorian' tradition, such as King's College in Cambridge. However, that doesn't necessarily result in a wobble - a vibrato which basically means a variation of pitch - as one can hear especially in Inigo Jones' singing. Tom Montgomery, who has a small part in De profundis clamavi, proves the opposite. This wobble damages the ensemble in the duos, trios and quartets; more so as the adults are not free from that either.
All in all, as much as I love Charpentier's music and admire New College Choir, this disc is not quite what I had hoped for and expected. Even so, if you love Charpentier you are advised to add this disc to your collection.
Johan van Veen
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