Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Leçons de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy Sainct (Tenebræ for Wednesday in Holy Week) [62:52]
Judith Nelson (soprano)
Anne Verkinderen (soprano)
Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs (counter-tenor)
rec. 1978.?

Reviewed as lossless download from (NO booklet with download). also have the same performers in Charpentier’s Leçons de ténèbres for Good Friday, no longer available on CD (HMC901007).

The reissue of this recording at budget price is very welcome, as it is otherwise immured in a 30-disc box set.  Its release is timely, too: I’m writing this review on the first Sunday in Lent and the music would have been performed on the evening of Wednesday in Holy Week, just a few weeks away and even closer by the time that you read it.

Tenebræ was actually an anticipation of Matins and Lauds for the last three days of Holy Week: thus the Wednesday Tenebræ were actually the office for the early morning of Maundy Thursday, and so on until the Holy Week services were returned to their proper place between 1955 and 1970.  What Charpentier sets are the three readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and two of the responsories which separate them together with the fourth responsory from the second Nocturne.

The lack of texts with any download that I can find presents a serious problem – some of my colleagues and I are currently on the warpath about the lack of booklets with so many downloads – but in this case you may even find that the CD is without texts: Harmonia Mundi budget reissues come in a cardboard package, usually with minimal notes and no texts.  As it happens, both the Latin and English texts of Lamentations are easily found online.  The Latin, with the Douay translation, made from the Latin is here*: verses 1-5, 6-9 and 10-14 form the three readings and the words Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum are sung after each section: Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God.

The first responsory is In Monte Oliveti oravit ad patrem: Pater, si fieri potest, transeat a me calix iste.  Spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma, fiat voluntas tua.   On the Mount of Olives He prayed to his Father, Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.  The spirit truly is willing but the flesh is weak.  Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.  The second reponsory is Tristis est anima mea usque ad mortem: sustinete hic, et vigilate mecum: nunc videbitis turbam, quæ circumdabit me: Vos fugam capietis, et ego vadam immolari pro vobis : My soul is weary even unto death.  Stay here, and keep watch with me: soon you will see a crowd of men surround me. You shall flee, and I will go to be sacrificed for you.

The third responsory which Charpentier set, actually the fourth, from the second section of Matins, or Nocturne, is Amicus meus osculi me tradidit signo: Quem osculatus fuero, ipse est, tenete eum: Hoc malum fecit signum, qui per osculum ad implevit homicidium. Infelix prætermisit pretium sanguinis, et in fine laquæo se suspendit. Bonum erat illi, si natus non fuisset homo ille. My friend betrayed me with a kiss as a sign.  He whom I kiss, that is he: hold him fast.  He who committed murder by a kiss gave this wicked sign.  The unhappy man repaid the price of blood and in the end hanged himself.  It would have been good for that man if he had never been born.

The publicity material given in some quarters lists the date of the recording as 1982 but a 3-LP set of Charpentier’s Ténèbres for Wednesday in Holy Week and Maundy Thursday was released in 1978 as HM1005/7 and this is surely that recording, first issued on CD in 1986 – the catalogue number even perpetuates that of the LP.  Much has changed since 1978: the Gramophone reviewer in July of that year gave the date of Charpentier’s birth as ‘about 1636’ and made the mistake of thinking that the music was intended for Mass.  Charpentier’s stage works, now better known thanks to work by William Christie, were then largely unknown whereas now we can compare his sacred and secular music.

The question would be how these now vintage performances shape up against more recent rivals, except that there is no direct competition.  On Glossa GCD921604 Hervé Niquet directs Le Concert Spirituel in the third lesson for Wednesday, together with excerpts from the Ténèbres for the other days, one each, and Charpentier’s Méditations pour le Carême or Meditations for Good Friday, and even that is download only now except as part of a 3-CD set (GSP980033 – review).  An Alpha recording, though labelled Leçons de Ténèbres, contains just one lesson from each of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday among a selection of Charpentier’s other works (ALPHA185, Arte dei Suonatori – review).  Very good as both of these are, the Harmonia Mundi recording is still the only way to obtain the three Wednesday readings.

Charpentier composed other settings of Ténèbres pour basse-taille or high baritone, but these settings were intended for the nuns of Port-Royal. Charpentier specified singers with une voix touchante rather than brillante, though he allows for some transposition.  A good deal of the music is written in a very low register, closer to what was known in France as haute-contre.  A great deal of scholarly ink has been spilled on the exact meaning of that term; it’s usually considered to refer to a high tenor voice, but it seems to have referred to a vocal range rather than a particular voice and it must have been performed at Port-Royal by a nun with a voice able to cope with that range.

Controversially, here the music in that range is sung by René Jacobs as a counter-tenor.  It’s very well sung, too, if you can accept a male singer.  The 1978 reviewer compared Jacobs’ voice and interpretation with those of Alfred Deller – no mean comparison in my book, but one which I thought most apt.  At times, too, in a blind listening you might think of Janet Baker – also no mean comparison.  For me in this case the end justifies the means, but if you think the use of a counter-tenor is likely to present a problem, I suggest sampling, if you can, from Qobuz or Naxos Music Library.  There’s also a sample on YouTube.

With Judith Nelson and Anne Verkinderen excellent in the parts for the two higher voices, I imagine that most listeners will find these performances ideal in their emotional engagement with the text.  French audiences of the time expected to hear this music sung emotionally, theatrically in effect.  This is music for show as much as for devotion, since the theatres would have been closed throughout Lent.  Charpentier had a sense of drama and gave what was expected of him. All concerned convey the dramatic tension inherent in the music and in the ceremony of Tenebræ itself, in which the candles were extinguished one by one after each of the psalms until only one was left to represent the Light of the World.

The voices weave together especially well in the three responsories, where there is less use of melismata but where equal virtuosity is called for and given.  If the words in the lessons are less than clear, that’s largely Charpentier’s fault because of the melismata with which he decorates them.  There’s no attempt to use the French pronunciation of the Latin u.

An appropriately light but varied instrumentation accompanies these performances: bass viole (Wieland Kuijken), organ/harpsichord (William Christie) and theorbo (Konrad Junghänel), all performers who would go on to be very distinguished exponents of the baroque repertoire in their own rights.  With very good, clear recording, especially in lossless format, all in all I enjoyed the whole experience apart from that irritating lack of booklet and texts.

Prices for these Harmonia Mundi D’Abord reissues vary from around £6.50 to around £9.  The same supplier is even apt to charge different prices for discs within the same series.  Eclassical’s $11.32 falls a little below the middle of that range at current rates of exchange: their per-second charging policy is generous for full-price releases but not for budget albums, but many will be prepared to pay a little more for the convenience of having lossless sound for the main home system and mp3 to play on-the-go all for the same price.

If you like what you hear, you could also go for HMC901007 (link above) or opt for the Virgin/Erato budget twofer of the Ténèbres for the remaining two days of Holy Week which I reviewed some time ago (5220212).  That collection combines items from various settings which Charpentier made for those days rather than just the Port-Royal versions on Harmonia Mundi; some of the psalms are also included.  With first-rate performances, it represents a notable bargain alongside the Harmonia Mundi reissue.  The Warner Apex budget twofer to which I referred then seems to be no longer available, even as a download, though some dealers still have the odd copy.  Any of these recordings will provide you with a combination of spiritual sustenance and drama.

* there’s a typo in verse 1: for ‘princes of provinces’ read ‘princess of provinces’.

Brian Wilson

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