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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Messe à quatre choeurs
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
Recorded 2019 at the Église Protestante Unie du Saint-Esprit, Paris, France DDD
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902640 [79:38]

The title of this disc is a bit misleading: the programme has much more to offer than a mass by Charpentier. In fact, more than half of the disc comprises music by Italian composers of the 17th century. That makes much sense: Charpentier was unique among his peers in that he embraced the Italian style, whereas his contemporaries had a rather negative view of a style they considered exuberant and exaggerated, both with regard to expression of emotions and technical virtuosity.

The aim of the programme is to show how Charpentier came across the idea of composing a polychoral mass. That was an Italian tradition that had passed France by completely: Charpentier's mass for four choirs was one of a kind. In his twenties he went to Italy; he arrived in Rome at some time between May 1666 and December 1667, and stayed there for about three years. However, it was not just the music by Roman composers he became acquainted with. The idea behind this disc is to give an impression of what he may have heard on his way to Rome. Obviously, this is highly speculative, but it seems reasonable to assume that he did visit those towns which were important centres of composing and performing. This explains why the programme includes pieces by Francesco Cavalli (Venice), Maurizio Cazzati (Bologna) and Tarquinio Merula (Cremona). As we don't know how exactly Charpentier travelled from Paris to Rome, it does not matter in which order the pieces are performed.

The disc opens with one of Charpentier's earliest works. Sub tuum praesidium is an antiphon for three voices (two sopranos and mezzo-soprano) without accompaniment. Charpentier wrote this piece shortly after his return from Rome, and it is in an old-fashioned style, including elements of newly-composed plainchant. This was the style he had grown up with. It is followed by the motet Salve caput sacrosanctum by Maurizio Cazzati, and that causes quite a shock. The striking difference between these two pieces makes the listener feel what Charpentier must have experienced when he heard such music for the very first time. It is not only scored for two choirs, but also shows how Italian composers of the stile nuovo treated a text. Moreover, the vocal parts could be doubled by instruments. This was so much different from what was common practice in France.

Another brilliant example of the new style is Francesco Cavalli's Magnificat, which is scored for three choirs, one of them instrumental. This piece also includes some striking examples of text expression. Take 'Deposuit potentes': the first phrase ("he hath put down the mighty from their seat") is set to a descending figure, immediately followed by ascending figures on the words "and hath exalted the humble". For 'Esurientes implevit bonis' ("he hath filled the hungry with good things"), Cavalli turns to the form of a fugue: it is as if we see the shopping bag of the poor being filled bit by bit with food.

Had Charpentier's French contemporaries had the opportunity to hear Tarquinio Merula's sacred concerto Credidi propter quod, they would have seen their opinions on the Italian style being confirmed. It is a highly virtuosic piece for bass; the solo part covers a range of two octaves, whereas the French usually explored a little more than one octave. In addition, the entire piece is based on a bass pattern of nine bars, which is repeated sixteen times.

Rome was a centre of polychorality: masses for up to twelve choirs have given musicologists reasons to characterise this style as Kolossalbarock (monumental Baroque). Among the composers of such works were Orazio Benevoli and Francesco Beretta. Whereas the former has received quite some attention and some of his works are available on disc, Beretta is an unknown quantity. He is said to have composed 25 masses for three to six choirs, but it seems not quite clear how much of his oeuvre has been preserved. This disc offers parts of his Missa Mirabiles elationes maris, which Charpentier copied from an original set of partbooks that are now lost. Composers of such works were mostly more interested in splendour and brilliance than in text expression, which is difficult to achieve with such massive forces anyway. However, they seldom missed the opportunity to do something special with the passages in the Credo referring to Christ's incarnation (Et incarnatus est) and crucifixion (Crucifixus). Some striking examples are known from later composers such as Antonio Lotti. The specimens included here, from the pen of Beretta and Benevoli, are certainly expressive, but relatively modest in comparison with Lotti's.

Charpentier, in his mass, goes some steps further here. It was written shortly after his return from Italy. Graham Sadler, in his liner-notes, mentions that circumstantial evidence suggests that it was commissioned by the Theatines, an order of Regular Clerics of Roman origin (Clercs réguliers), to celebrate the canonisation of their founder, San Gaetano, at a ceremony in their recently built church, Sainte-Anne-la-Royale, in 1671. Charpentier explores all the possibilities the scoring for four choirs offers. The choirs are sometimes involved in a dialogue, at some moments they are joined to emphasize particularly important parts of the text, and there are also passages for reduced forces, to be sung by solo voices. Exactly that is the case in the 'Et incarnatus est', which is one of the expressive key moments in this work. Notable is the opening of the Gloria, which is scored for solo sopranos, who may be act here as representatives of angels, proclaiming God's glory. The mass does not include a setting of the psalm text Domine salvum fac regem (O Lord, save the King), which was traditionally part of every Mass. Here Sébastian Daucé has added an independent setting by Charpentier.

It rounds off a historically intriguing and musically exciting disc. Charpentier's Messe à quatre choeurs is an impressive testimony of what he had learned in Italy. His oeuvre includes many more examples of this Italian influence. His mixture of these elements with the traditional French style is part of the attraction of his music. He is one of those composers who just were not able to put a foot wrong in their oeuvre. Over the years I have heard many of his works, and none of them has ever disappointed me. This mass is another jewel, and I can't imagine a better performance than we get here. The Ensemble Correspondances is undoubtedly top of the bill as far as French music of the baroque era is concerned. However, this disc shows that it is equally at home in Italian music. The pieces by Cazzati, Merula and Cavalli receive performances which are hard to surpass. It is not only a group whose voices blend wonderfully well, which is why the tutti episodes, especially in the masses, come off so well, but its members are also excellent soloists, and Nicolas Brooymans, who takes care of the solo part in Merula, is just one of them.

In short, this is a superb disc, because of the music and of the performances. A special recommendation is inevitable.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Sub tuum praesidium (H 28) [02:18]
Maurizio CAZZATI (1616-1678)
Salve caput sacrosanctum [02:54]
Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Sonata a 12 in D minor [03:49]
Magnificat a 12 [16:26]
Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95-1665)
Credidi propter quod [04:12]
Francesco BERETTA (c1640-1694)
Missa Mirabiles elationes maris:
Kyrie [07:16]
Giuseppe GIAMBERTI (c1600-c1663)
Similabo eum viro sapienti [02:31]
Francesco BERETTA (c1640-1694)
Missa Mirabiles elationes maris:
Et incarnatus est [01:45]
Orazio BENEVOLI (1605-1672)
Missa Si Deus pro nobis:
Crucifixus [01:45]
Francesco BERETTA (c1640-1694)
Missa Mirabiles elationes maris:
Sanctus [02:48]
Agnus Dei [01:46]
Messe pour les trépassés (H 2):
Symphonie du Kyrie [01:30]
Messe à 4 choeurs (H 4) [28:55]
Domine salvum fac regem (H 285)



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