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François COUPERIN (1688-1733)
Leçons de Ténèbres [42:20]
Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730)
Trio Sonata in E minor, SdB.220 [7:07]
Trio Sonata in A minor, SdB.223 [5:04]
Stabat Mater, SdB.8 [16:01]
Lucy Crowe & Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
La Nuova Musica/David Bates
rec. October 2015, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, UK
Full Latin text and translations in English, German, and French
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807659 [70:32]

La Nuova Musica is one of the most exciting young Baroque ensembles on the musical scene today, and so one could confidently expect that in turning its attention to one of the great sacred vocal works of that period, the results would be exemplary. Fortunately that proves to be the case, with the focus certainly resting upon the contributions of the two sopranos.

Lucy Crowe opens the cycle with a beautifully plaintive introduction, announcing the setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which will follow, and then maintains a mood of calm reverence and fine radiance of tone through much of the first Leçon. The original Hebrew text is an alphabetical acrostic poem, and so each verse starts by intoning the relevant Hebrew letter. Composers, including Couperin, tend to lay more musical weight upon those letters in their settings, rather than the poetry itself, and so it makes sense for Crowe to intensify her singing on the ravishing melismas, to which they are set in order to instil musical structure to the work. Her rendition of “Beit” is notable in that regard, where the yearning tension of the music is pressed with delectable urgency, and “Dalet” exudes an artful desperation.

It is questionable whether Couperin’s glorious music sustains a sufficiently solemn character for its context in the Holy Week liturgy, but Crowe’s ornamentation of the recitative-like lines of the text proper remains on the decorous and decent side of sensuality, ending with a solemnly still injunction to Jerusalem to “turn again unto they Lord”.

The difference between Crowe in the first Leçon and Elizabeth Watts in the second is subtle but perceptible. The latter brings to bear upon the music a slightly more operatic expressivity perhaps, with a tone of voice that is a notch deeper, and so is that much more impassioned – particularly in the section on “Hei”, “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned” – but is less mournful than Crowe. Their voices combine sympathetically in the duet third Leçon, with the delicious melismas and sequences on the Hebrew letters finely controlled. Throughout they adopt a French pronunciation for the Latin, which imparts another layer of authenticity as well contributing to the soft-grain of their lissom delivery of the music, so that, for example, “sub” comes out more like “soob”, ‘c’s are soft, and the ‘j’ in “ejus’ is actually pronounced, rather than enunciated as a ‘y’. Overall, among other recorded versions, one might go to René Jacobs’s for more drama, but La Nuova Musica’s complements and probably equals that by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in terms of the expressive beauty it achieves, and both opt for an authentic pairing of female singers – the music was written for a nunnery – unlike Jacobs’s.

Between the Leçons come two trio sonatas by Sébastien de Brossard, which marry French musical charm with Italian formal elegance following Corelli’s pioneering models. La Nuova Musica’s performances of them are such that the music seems animated from within, rather than imposed through contrived means by the performers themselves, with the unassuming ending of the A minor Sonata sounding almost comic.

The disc is rounded off with another sacred work for Holy Week, de Brossard’s setting of the Stabat Mater. David Bates’s direction again assumes a sufficiently serious purpose, not least in the disciplined, streamlined choral effects of his singers en masse, but also an engaging attention to detail, which astutely brings out the drama of the setting. In the penultimate movement there are some startling effects on the repetitions of the word “plangere” which add urgency to an overall thoughtful interpretation.

Curtis Rogers

Previous review: Simon Thompson


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