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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Messe à quatre chœurs H4 (c.1670-1674) [40:17]
Philippe HERSANT (b. 1948)
Cantique des trois enfants dans la fournaise (2013-2014) [23:53]
Maîtrise de Radio France/Sofi Jeannin
Les Pages, les Chantres et les Symphonistes du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles/Olivier Schneebeli
rec. February 2019, l’Auditorium de Radio France, Paris
Latin text with French translation (Charpentier); French text – no translation (Hersant)
Notes in French and English

As the blurb on the reverse cover tells us, the programme here consists of Charpentier’s Messe à quatre chœurs - “an example unique in France of a polychoral sacred work in the Roman tradition” – paired with a modern work by Philippe Hersant which employs as its text a 17th century poem about “the three children in the fiery furnace…based on the Book of Daniel”. These works are performed by two children’s choirs, who also provide the soloists, and a period baroque orchestra of nineteen players for each piece. Although the singers are schoolchildren, they include older boys whose voices have broken, singing as tenors, baritones and countertenors, so we have the requisite gamut of registers.

I suspect that the general collector like me will first have become acquainted with Charpentier’s music via his Christmas Messe de Minuit and the Te Deum with its famous martial prelude for timpani and trumpets and probably be familiar with little else. Certainly his Mass for Four Choirs ranks with those works and two MusicWeb colleagues heartily recommended a recent recording of it on Harmonia Mundi (review; review), a while back in 2004, John Quinn was equally enthusiastic about a recording by Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. It is generally agreed that the Mass was heavily influenced by Charpentier’s experience of the Roman musical tradition during his trip to Italy and if anything, the imitator excels his models in grandeur and innovation. According the Charpentier’s precise instructions, for his Mass here, the four choirs are strategically positioned antiphonally at cardinal points to represent the geometry of the cross.

A caveat here for the prospective buyer: you must have a taste for a more naturalistic, less polished style of choral singing than we are used to hearing from adult choirs. I mean no disrespect by that to the young singers here; they are very accurate and professional but no listener would mistake their voices for their more mature counterparts. Some of the singing by the male broken voices, however, is uncomfortably nasal in quality. Similarly, also required is an appreciation of very “period” sounding instruments, which groan and whine “in the best possible taste” – though I imagine most of us are now habituated to such a sound and many enjoy its gritty immediacy.

Regarding the music itself, as a fusion of French and Italian baroque style, it is very interesting, rich and multi-layered, redolent of a very High Church grandeur and often reminiscent of Monteverdi’s Vespers but without the kind of rhythmic variety or melodic which characterises it and I do not myself think it to be quite the masterwork some previous reviewers hail it as, impressive though it is. They are certainly many striking and effective passages, especially that part of the Credo which narrates the Incarnation which has a kind of golden, Bachian halo of sound around it, and I like the colourful repetition of “non” in “non erit finis” which smacks of the madrigal, whereas the frequent recourse to melismata harks back to Gregorian chant. The way Charpentier mixes and matches his four choirs with soloists is probably more evident in live performance than in a recording, where, for example, one would see how soloists from each of the four choirs combine to open the Gloria, but nonetheless the listener still gets some sense of the scale and scope of his composition from this recording. The textures are complex and moods veer between the majestic and the hieratic, and the plaintive and the supplicatory – even if there are also moments of surprising jauntiness, such as the upbeat dotted rhythm in the Iberian-sounding Agnus Dei. The climax of the second Kyrie is especially grand and I enjoy the way the respective choirs toss the same phrase from one to another. There are lots of unexpected little touches, like the pause after “Et exspecto” before the joyful outburst on “resurrectionem”.

The pronunciation employed is the authentic Gallicised Latin of the era with the tight French “u” vowel and the “ts” sound for the “c” consonant in, for example, “caeli” instead of “tch”, and the “sc” in “suscipe” is sibilant rather than the voiceless fricative “sh”. That takes some getting used to but adds to the ambience of the work.

Charpentier’s brief Ave verum corpus, H233, neatly sung by two trebles, is interpolated for the Elevation before the Benedictus. It had also become customary to include in the Mass a prayer for the preservation of the king, such was the cult encouraged by Louis XIV, and just such a conclusion is included here. The full Latin liturgy of the Catholic mass is provided with a French translation.

The transition to Hersant’s canticle is by no means a wrench, as it was commissioned specifically as a companion piece to the Charpentier Mass and as a result, as the notes tell us, the composer capitalised upon his own attachment to baroque music by using “the same choral and instrumental configuration and the same spatial dimension”. I find the work rather appealing; It has an odd, mantra-like quality, whereby the same melodic phrase is repeated in a manner which reminds me of Philip Glass and lends the music a kind of soothing, mesmeric character. It makes more prominent use of countertenor, treble and baritone soloists to narrate the text, whereas the choirs here have more of a supporting role, and is much sparer in texture than the Charpentier. The central, discordant “tempest” section makes a bold contrast with the prevailing mood, which is one of celebration of the natural world. The listener might make a mental link with Orff’s Carmina Burana, in that the music is identifiably modern, but essentially tonal and grounded by its frequent allusions to baroque musical tropes and the a cappella polyphonic passage depicting the seasons (track 24) is particularly effective.

The text is a poem by Antoine Godeau (1605-1672). The French is provided in the booklet but there is no English translation, so I have attempted one, included below as an appendix. The language is at times rather convoluted and elliptical, and some of it might approach the untranslatable, so I will undoubtedly have made the odd error in my translation – but I have tried to convey the spirit of the poem and you will get the gist…

Ralph Moore

English translation of Godeau’s poem:

Canticle of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace
The hope of every afflicted soul,
Great God, our sole aid and remedy,
By whom the thread of our lives
In spite of the fires, is prolonged,
Lord God, whose powerful hand
From an inhuman tyrant’s chains
Saved our faithful ancestors,
May your name be always blessed,
May everlasting songs forever
Celebrate your* infinite power.

May your holy praise be sung
In the resting place where angels,
Who are but flaming love and ardour,
Serve as a throne for your greatness,
May you be blessed in heaven,
May your glory dazzle the eyes
Where your beauty lies unveiled,
Where we see that in which we believe,
Where you walk upon the stars,
And whence your sunbeams stream into Hell.

Bless God, you wingèd company,
Angels whom his love sets ablaze,
Bright torches, who in this sojourn
Guide† our exiled souls,
Golden vaults, moving miracles,
Globes of sparkling flame,
Palace of noble form,
Azure thrones, splendid bodies,
Beautiful skies, the glory of nature,
Celebrate his greatness in your divine refrain.

Seas suspended above heads,
You waters that cover the firmament,
Virtues that in each element
Providence has spread;
Mirror of divinity,
Immortal father of light,
By whom only is the earth fruitful,
Eye of the sky that lets us see all,
King of the stars, the world’s soul,
Bless the mighty power of the Lord.

Praise his greatness without equal,
Fickle sun of the night,
Whose chariot moves noiselessly
When nature slumbers,
Illustrious messenger of the months,
Moon, whose secret laws
Rule the salt plains,
Wandering fires, heavenly torches,
Golden flowers strewn on the sky,
Stars, bless God who made you so beautiful.

Shining, liquid pearls,
Sweet nourishment of flowers,
Manna from heaven, fertile tears,
Whose dawn bedews the meadows;
And you moving soulless bodies,
Deceptive objects, toys of the winds,
Veils of the sky, subtle clouds,
Hope of our parched fields,
Praise the famous strength,
Of that arm which drew men out of nothingness.

Dreadful authors of storms,
Kings of the air, terror of the ferrymen,
Winds which of the firmest rocks
Shake the beautiful heads;
Thunderbolts roaring in the air,
Ravines, storms, lightning,
Terror of criminal souls,
Weapons whose angry sky
Punishes the rebels here below,
Bless the high majesty of the Lord.

Fire, you who with utmost speed,
Have taken your place under the skies,
Where without showing yourself to our eyes,
You live only on yourself;
Air, where the sky, in horror
Of his just anger,
Imprints the bloody marks
When he is ready to punish
Either commoners or monarchs,
Bless that Lord whom we cannot bless too much.

Spring, you who make the grass grow,
Winter crowned with icicles,
Summer whose rich harvests
Give glory to the countryside
Hailstones, snow, thick mists,
Praise the Lord forever,
Celebrate his illustrious name,
All that he brings forth is perfect,
And this admirable universe,
Is but a token of his divine power.

Rich and weighty creation,
The old nurse of human beings,
Who by the work of their hands
Gain their reward through wear and tear,
Mounds cultivated by their care,
Mountains who lift up to the sky
The pride of your haughty peaks,
Valleys full of riches,
Rivers, ponds, streams, fountains,
Bless the same Lord whom our verses bless.

Night in love with silence,
Whose innocent poppies
Soothe the violence
Of our care and work;
Day which, dispelling the darkness,
Makes known the truth of objects,
Objects hidden in shadows,
Bless this God without equal,
Without whom the stars would be dark,
And whose brightness dazzles the sun.

Render unto him your just homage,
[Redouble]‡ your holy fervour,
O you, upon whom he lavishes favours,
Men, his living images;
People whom he has chosen for his own,
Whose support he surrendered,
While you were faithful to him;
And you who are near to his altars,
Where your duty calls you,
Implore his favour for other mortals,

[Souls surrounded by licentiousness,
Breathing this contagious air,
Which spreads into so many places,
You keep in innocence,
Those for whom the paths of virtue,
Although rough and rarely trod,
Are full of pleasant delights,] ◊
Praise this God who leads you,
Who makes you triumph over vices,
and serves you as the sun in the middle of the night.

But we whom he crowns with glory,
That he guards in the midst of these fires,
To whom in a famous fight,
He brings victory,
We whose shackles he has broken,
We whom he rescues from the Underworld,
He whose cause arms the angels,
Let us celebrate his name forever,
Let us ring out his praises,
And when we do talk, let us speak of his good deeds.

[Praise this God] • who leads you,
[Who makes you triumph over vices,] ◊
and serves you as the sun in the middle of the night.

(trans. Ralph Moore)
There are some variations from the original text in what is sung:

* “son pouvoir infini” (his infinite power) is sung rather “ton” (your)
† “Gardez” (Keep safe) is sung rather that “Guidez” (Guide)
‡ “Et” (And) is sung instead of “Redoublez” (Redouble)
◊ These lines not sung
• “Bénissez Dieu” (Bless God) is sung instead of “Louez ce Dieu” (Praise this God)

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