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Ex Tenebris Lux
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredy saint (H 92) [9:29]
Jean-François DANDRIEU (1682-1738)
Suite en D La Ré mineur:
Basse de cromorne [1:43]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi saint [12:36]
Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749)
Suite du 2e ton:
Flûtes [4:23]
Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Jeudi saint (H 93) [10:29]
Tristis est anima mea (H 126) [3:25]
Benoit DUMON
Improvisation on Victimae paschali laudes [3:02]
Victoria! Christo resurgenti (Motet pour le jour de Pâques) [6:25]
Jean-François DANDRIEU
Suite en D La Ré mineur:
Offertoire pour le jour de Pâques
Les Zippoventilés/Benoit Dumon
rec. 2018, Church at Vinça, France
Texts not included
SOLSTICE SOCD354 [59:27]

Numerous composers of the renaissance and the baroque periods have contributed in one way or another to the celebrations of Holy Week. They composed Passions, responsories or settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The latter were performed during the last three days before Easter. Due to the growing popularity of this kind of music, the performances were moved from the night to the evening before the respective day. That was also the case in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, for instance, were performed on Wednesday.

Interest in performances of Leçons de Ténèbres, which took place in churches and in convents, was such that they turned from liturgical into commercial events. That was partly due to the fact that opera performances were forbidden during Lent. For opera lovers the Leçons de Ténèbres were a substitute for opera. As opera singers were without employment during Lent, they sometimes participated in performances of such pieces. Some churches even charged for seats. A contemporary writer stated that "the convents of the Théatins and the Feuillants, as well as the Abbey of Longchamp turned their church into an opera house".

The best-known Leçons de Ténèbres are those from the pen of François Couperin. It seems that he had the intention of writing a complete set, meaning three lessons for each of the three days. In the foreword of the publication of the first three lamentations, to be sung on Wednesday, he wrote: "I composed some years ago three Tenebrae Lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the Lady Nuns of Lxx where they were sung with great success. I decided a few months ago to compose those for Wednesday and Thursday. However, I am giving you here only the three for the first day, since I do not have enough time before Lent to have the other six printed." The lessons for Good Friday have never been found. Whether those for Thursday are also lost or were never written, fact is that only those for Wednesday have come down to us. The first two are for solo voice and basso continuo, the third is for two voices. This allowed Couperin to express the text through harmonic tension and pretty strong dissonances, such as in the closing passage of the first section.

The most prolific composer of Leçons de Ténèbres was Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The catalogue of his oeuvre includes a little under 30 settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. (The liner-notes mention 50; I don't know where that number comes from.) Most of the Leçons are for one to three voices and basso continuo. Only occasionally Charpentier included one or more parts for melody instruments. In one set, the number of voices is extended to six. The present disc includes two settings for two voices and basso continuo, for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively. Whereas in Couperin's settings the lyrical and the more declamatory passages are more or less formally separated, showing the influence of contemporary Italian opera and cantatas, in Charpentier's settings they are more integrated. His treatment of the text and of harmony reflects the influences of the Italian style of his days. He had been in Rome, where he had become acquainted with the oeuvre of Giacomo Carissimi, which had a decisive influence on his development as a composer. There are many moments of dissonance in these two settings, for instance through the use of seconds.

Charpentier's oeuvre includes a number of settings of Tenebrae Responsories, which were also part of the Holy Week liturgy. One of them is Tristis est anima mea, part of a set of nine, all except one for lower voices (tenor, bass), instruments and basso continuo. The one performed here is the only one without instrumental parts. Although it is scored for two tenors, there is no fundamental objection to a performance by two sopranos. It is no less expressive than the Leçons de Tènèbres. Again, Charpentier shows his skills in setting a text.

The programme ends with a piece for Easter. Victoria! Christo resurgenti is one of the better-known vocal works by Couperin. It comprises two sections, each ending with "Alleluia".

One of the notable features of these performances is the use of a large organ. That is still quite uncommon in this kind of repertoire, as in most performances the basso continuo is performed on a small organ. Both can be justified. Public performances of Leçons de Ténèbres certainly did not only take place in churches or other venues with large organs. However, because of the use of a large organ, originally built by Jean-Pierre Cavaillé in 1765 and reconstructed by Gerhard Grenzing in 1986, this recording is a nice alternative to most performances of Leçons de Ténèbres in the catalogue. Moreover, the two settings by Charpentier may well be first recordings; ArkivMusic does not mention any other performance.

The use of this organ also allows for the inclusion of some organ pieces. It seems unlikely that the Basse de cromorne by Dandrieu and the Flûtes by Clérambault have any connection to Holy Week. However, although they are taken from suites, they were certainly intended for liturgical use. The disc closes with a piece by Dandrieu which is specifically connected to Easter.

Benoit Dumon plays them very well, and he also comes up with a nice improvisation as an introduction to Couperin's motet. The organ as a basso continuo instrument adds something substantial to this recording, which is excellent anyway. Lisa Magrini and Gaëlle Vitureau deliver superb performances, in which much attention is given to text expression. The immaculate intonation is of great importance, considering the use of harmony for expressive reasons in this repertoire. The voices also blend perfectly. They are not very different in colour, but in this case that is an advantage rather than a problem. It's just a shame that the booklet omits the lyrics.

Even so, this is a very fine addition to the discography of music for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen

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