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François COUPERIN (1668-1733) L'Apothéose de Lully [31:53] Leçons de Ténèbres:
Première Leçon [15:47]
Deuxième Leçon [11:26]
Troisième Leçon [11:26]
Katherine Watson (soprano), Anna Dennis (soprano)
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord)
rec. St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, March 2013 (Leçons), January 2014 (Apothéose) HYPERION CDA68093 [70:35]
The L'Apothéose de Lully was, as the name suggests, Couperin’s piece composed in memory of Lully. This is the third recording I have of it. The instrumentation of the work is purely up to the performers. As the composer himself suggests, “can be played on two harpsichords as well as any other instruments”. The three discs I have display this perfectly. The first is a performance by William Christie and Christophe Rousset, Harmonia Mundi (HMC 901269)—as originally intended, on two harpsichords. On the second, on Sony (SBK 62941), the Kuijkens perform a chamber version, including violins, bass viol, cello, flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon and harpsichord. The present recording offers an in-between approach: just violins, viola da gamba, lute and harpsichord. All versions have their validity, although up to now I have found myself drawn more to the Christie and Rousset’s recording. This new version has a greater sense of clarity than the Kuijkens which comes from the use of strings alone. The lutenist, Thomas Dunford, deserves special mention; his phrasing adds colour to the performance. I also prefer Stéphane Degout as narrator. As a singer, he has a greater sense of musicality than Robert Kohnen for the Kuijkens. His voice also has a deeper timbre, giving his performance greater depth of feeling.
As with L'Apothéose de Lully, I now also have three versions of the Leçons de Ténèbres. My favourite is that by Sophie Daneman and Patricia Petibon, again led by William Christie, on Erato (0630-17067-2). Originally Couperin intended this to be a series of nine Leçons, three for each day of the Sacrum Triduum. Sadly he only managed to complete those for Le Mercredi Saint, or Maundy Thursday. These devotional works, an important part of the evening liturgy, were composed at the request of the Lady Nuns of Lxx (the abbey of Longchamp) sometime between 1713 and 1717. It has been suggested that Couperin had composed remaining six Leçons but failed to get them engraved, and they were subsequently lost.
The performance is good, and it makes an ideal companion to the L'Apothéose de Lully. For me, it does not eclipse the Christie performance. Sophie Daneman and Patricia Petibon have a greater purity than Katherine Watson and Anna Dennis, making theirs the recording I will return to most. I do prefer it, however, to my other version, also on Hyperion, by James Bowman and Michael Chance (CDH55455). That is a performance I never got on with. The countertenor voices do not suit the music, which was composed for women to sing, after all.
This recording, then, offers an elegant and well performed chamber version of the L'Apothéose de Lully, one up there with the best, and a recording of the Leçons de Ténèbres, that whilst very good and well performed, would not be my first choice. However, if you are coming to the Leçons anew and want a recording of the Apothéose, this could well be the recording for you. Performances throughout are very good. It is just my preference for the greater purity of the sung text that sways me towards the Christie. The booklet notes for this new Hyperion recording, which are also in French and German, are excellent, with full Latin texts given, but with only English translations.