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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733)
Leçons de Ténèbres & Motets
Leçons de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saint
Première Leçon [14:51]
Seconde Leçon [11:10]
Troisième Leçon/ [10:58]
Quatre versets du psaume Mirabilia testimonia tua [9:18]
Messe propre pour les couvents de religieux et religieuses: Agnus Dei [1:20]; Salvum me fac Deus, Motets à voix seule, deux et trois parties, et symphonies [15:00]
Chantal Santon Jeffery, Anne Magouët (soprano), Benoît Arnould (bass)
Marc Meisel (organ)
Les Ombres/Margaux Blanchard, Sylvain Sartre
rec. 2017, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-l'Immaculée-Conception, Nantes & the Église Sainte-Marie-des-Fontenelles, Nanterre, France
Texts and translations included
MIRARE MIR358 [62:41]

François Couperin, one of the main composers of France around 1700 and for most of his life in the service of Louis XIV, was born in 1668. That means that this year (2018) we will see quite a number of releases of his oeuvre. That is hardly necessary, as his output is not that large and very well represented on disc. Truth is: his harpsichord pieces, his organ masses and his music for an instrumental ensemble, including the two suites for viola da gamba and basso continuo, are available in many recordings. Things are a bit different in the vocal department. In this part of his oeuvre the Leçons de ténèbres have been recorded numerous times, but his other sacred works are little known. Therefore the present disc is important in that it includes the first recording of the motet Salvum me fac Deus. The Quatre versets apparently have been recorded before, but are hardly known. At least I had never heard them before.

The disc opens with the Leçons de ténèbres. The performance of such pieces was one of the main liturgical events during the reign of Louis XIV. They became so popular that they were often performed during public concerts, for which the audience had to pay. Of course these concerts took place during the day, instead of the early hours of the morning when the Lamentations originally were meant to be sung.

Although the texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah were set by Italian and German composers as well, the phenomenon of the Leçons de Ténèbres was typically French. That is reflected by the number of settings by French composers. François Couperin didn't compose as much religious music as some of his contemporaries, but his sacred oeuvre is of high quality, and his Leçons de Ténèbres belong among the best he has written.

It is known that he composed three sets of Leçons, for every day three lessons, but for some reason only the Leçons for Thursday were published. Other settings from his pen have never been found. The first two Leçons are written for one soprano, the third for two sopranos, all three with basso continuo. The soprano parts are different in tessitura: the one in the first Leçon is a little lower than that in the second Leçon. It seems likely that Couperin composed his Leçons de ténèbres for the nuns of the Royal Abbey of Longchamp. It has inspired the performers to use a large positive organ in the second Leçon; in the other two the basso continuo is played at the harpsichord.

From the angle of repertoire the two other vocal items are much more interesting. The Quatre Versets d'un motet composé et chanté par ordre du Roy were performed in 1703. The verses are taken from Psalm 119 (11-14): "My zeal hath made me pine away, because mine enemies forgot thy words". The scoring is quite remarkable. The first verse is for two sopranos and has to be sung, according to Couperin's instructions, without basso continuo or any instrument. Imitation between the two voices plays a major part in this piece, whose vocalises remind of the settings of the Hebrew syllables in the Leçons de Ténèbres. The next verse is for one soprano and symphony, meaning treble instruments and basso continuo. The third verse is also for one voice, in this case only accompanied by the flutes, with the basso continuo played by the violins. In the fourth verse the two sopranos sing to the accompaniment of the dessus, the treble instruments (flutes and violins). It is interesting that the printed edition, published by Ballard in Paris, mentions the names of the performers: Mademoiselle Chappe - about whom nothing seems to be known - and Mademoiselle Couperin. The latter probably refers to François's niece Marguerite Louise. As these pieces were performed at the Chapelle Royale this seems to suggest that women were involved in the performance of sacred music there.

It is a bit disappointing that the liner-notes hardly give any information about this piece. Therefore I have made use of Wilfred Meller's book François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition, originally published in 1950. However, he does not discuss the last item in the programme, the motet Salvum me fac Deus. As it is not even included in his work-list, it may well have been discovered after the publication of his book. It is a setting of a number of verses from Psalm 68 (69), which is connected to the first Nocturne of Maundy Thursday. That means that with this piece we return to the start of this disc, and in expression it has quite some similarity with the Leçons de Ténèbres. A perfect example of Couperin's skills in text expression is the verse 'Laboravi clamans': "I have laboured with crying; my jaws are become hoarse. My eyes have failed, while I hope in my God". The title refers to an accompaniment of a symphonie; for most of the piece there is just one instrumental part; in some cases there are two. The instruments are not specified; the line-up is left to the choice of the performers. Here flutes and violins either alternate or play colla parte.

Benoît Arnould delivers an impressive performance in which the text expression is fully explored. There is a perfect balance between the voice and the instruments. The Quatre versets are also sung very well; the opening duet of the two sopranos is intriguing and compelling, and the voices are a perfect match. That, however, is not entirely the case in the Leçons de Ténèbres, I am afraid. The voices of Chantal Santon Jeffery and Anne Magouët are quite different: the former has the darker voice and is also more theatrical by nature, and that suits the first Leçon rather well. Ms Magouët has a lighter voice and has a kind of innocence. The contrast also makes it easier to tell the two voices apart in the third Leçon. However, the interpretations are rather inconsistent. Chantal Santon Jeffery sings with a considerable amount of vibrato, whereas Anne Magouët almost completely avoids it. I find it rather odd that in the third Leçon the former sometimes strongly reduces it, whereas on other occasions it is clearly noticeable and has a damaging effect on the ensemble. Whatever the performers think of the use of vibrato, there should at least be some consistency here. It seems that the directors of the performance have left it to the choice of the singers. I even wonder, whether they have even given the issue any thought.

As a result this recording of the Leçons de Ténèbres cannot be ranked among the best in the catalogue. That is especially regrettable, as the interpretation is quite expressive. Therefore lovers of this kind of music should investigate this disc, but especially because of the two other vocal items, which are of excellent quality and receive outstanding performances, both from singers and players.

Johan van Veen


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