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Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696)
Leçons de Ténèbres (1662-3)
Première Leçon du Mercredi Saint [22:50]
Etienne RICHARD (1621-1669)
Allemande in G minor [2:01]
Deuxième Leçon du Mercredi Saint [14:17]
Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661)
Psaume in F major, VM 7.675 [0:46]
Psaume in F major, VM 675 [1:39]
Troisième Leçon du Mercredi Saint [15:21]
Simphonie in G minor [1:22]
Monique Zanetti (soprano)
Ensemble Les Temps Présents
rec. 2018, Auditorium Campra, Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, Aix-en-Provence, France
Latin texts with English and French translations
AEOLUS AE-10113 [58:30]

A French Baroque setting of the Church’s Holy Week tenebrae liturgy is most likely to lead one to think of François Couperin’s sublime set. It makes for a welcome change, then, to encounter an earlier setting by Michel Lambert – the first series he composed, in 1662-3, even if only the first day (Wednesday) is featured here.

Monique Zanetti and Ensemble Les Temps Présents make an excellent case that this sequence holds its own against Couperin’s rightly admired work, as being equally beautiful and expressive. It only seems less significant in that the third Leçon omits the addition of a second voice, like Couperin’s, and so lacks the exquisite intertwining that occurs in the duets of the latter’s vocal elaborations of the initial Hebrew letters of each verse. Lambert’s Leçons partly make up for that by the little postludes for the viols and continuo alone which have accompanied the voice throughout, and so gradually defuse the expressive tension of the vocal setting which has gone before.

Zanetti sings Lambert’s lovely and long undulating melodies with a ripe vocal timbre – her fairly rapid but loose vibrato sometimes sounds like a controlled, deliberate wobble, which is alternately sensuous and moody, and to some extent emphasised by the generous recorded acoustic. The interpretation might not be to everyone’s taste, or encourage listening all the way through at one sitting. But cumulatively each individual Leçon is a moving experience, and her articulation remains clear and crisp, conducive to meditation on the sombre text. These settings may have been intended to accompany worship during the most solemn part of the Church’s calendar immediately prior to Easter, but Zanetti shows that they should still appeal to the heart as much as to the head or any merely austere spiritual faculty.

Having set out her musical stall, Zanetti shows in the second Leçon that she can sustain a line or note purely and without vibrato, which is equally moving as when she does utilise it. Together, she and Ensemble Les Temps Présents create an effect which is as though timeless, her voice floating hauntingly, almost disembodied, over the steady accompaniment of strings and organ. The Ensemble provide demure, sober support, never stealing the musical limelight, even as they emerge just a little from the shadows at the end of each Leçon, and just before another candle would have been extinguished, giving the liturgical ceremony its name of tenebrae or darkness.

The instrumental pieces from the celebrated Bauyn manuscript which are interspersed among the vocal settings offer a subtle degree of contrast. For instance, the slightly greater lustre of the viols’ tone in Etienne Richard’s Allemande, the rhythmic lilt supplied by the organ in this instrumental version of the second of the two Psalms here by Louis Couperin, or the modicum of levity created by the viols’ ornamentation to that composer’s Simphonie all offset sympathetically the gravitas of the much longer vocal items.

Those who already love Couperin’s Leçons will be amply rewarded in investigating this release. Marc Mauillon’s light, mellifluous performance as a tenor on Harmonia Mundi offers the whole of the 1662-3 cycle for each of the three days of the tenebrae liturgy. Zanetti’s new release puts the Wednesday triplet alone within a more musically rounded context, and as a soprano, she not only provides a very different slant on this music, but recreates it in a more authentic guise insofar as Lambert originally wrote it for the female singers of the Feuillants Convent in Paris. On its own merits too, this disc offers fine performances of rare but delightful repertoire which should be recommendation enough for its wider dissemination, and subsequent releases to cover Thursday and Friday of the cycle would be warmly welcomed.

Curtis Rogers

Sylvie Moquet (treble and bass viols), Sylvia Abramowicz (bass viol), Claire Antonini (theorbo), Dominique Serve (organ)

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