Intimate, emotional, spiritual ... and breathtaking
Leslie Richford | Selsingen, Lower Saxony | 10/24/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of those rare CD productions for which even Amazon's top evaluation of five stars seems stingy, for it achieves a level of 'perfection' (if such a thing is possible in such a subjective area as music) that merits distinction above and beyond the praise one would normally lavish on a successful recording. Let me try and justify this remark with some facts: Firstly, there is Charpentier's music. Over the last 30 years or so, there has been a revival of Baroque music which has gone hand in hand with the re-discovery of certain composers who had almost been forgotten. One of these was Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 - 1704), second in the 17th century French pecking order only to Lully. Charpentier's prolific output for the stage has been made known to a wider public chiefly through the efforts of William Christie. His sacred music has been slower to find interpreters, but first progress was made by René Jacobs and Philippe Herreweghe with recordings of motets. The 'Leçons de ténèbres' were written for Holy Week, there being in Catholic France a tradition of reading or singing passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before Easter. The most famous 'Leçons' were by Michel Lambert and François Couperin, but Charpentier, too, wrote quite a large amount of music for the services associated with these readings (which were sung not only by monks and nuns, but also by opera singers). Charpentier's miniatures are based on the original Gregorian melodies but combined with the Italianate style for which he was famed, the scores being carefully marked to show the singers how to perform the elaborate vocal decorations of the numerous melismas. The whole is given an instrumental accompaniment that can vary according to the availability of instruments and musicians. This is music of incredible high beauty.
Secondly, there is the performance and/or interpretation, which I can only describe as exquisite. Gérard Lesne, known for his natural-sounding countertenor, is here joined by an excellent team of vocalists. The introductory Gregorian chant is brilliantly mastered by bass Jacques Bona; the first 'Leçon' is given breathtaking treatment by French soprano Agnès Mellon, whose soft, sensuous voice (known to many listeners for her part in Philippe Herreweghe's recording of Bach's 'Magnificat') seems absolutely ideal for this intimate, emotional and spiritual music. The inclusion on this CD of some of Charpentier's three-part compositions of the Hebrew letters of the alphabet is an extra goodie: they are beautiful beyond description. As are also the instrumental introductions to individual sections, where the combination of treble viol, recorder, bass violin and organ can, on occasion, be almost ecstatic. One or two unaccompanied sections of Gregorian chant achieve much the same effect, so that this CD is, in sum, a real winner.
Thirdly, there is a more than adequate booklet. The Good Friday volume contains only one introductory essay (the Wednesday and Thursday have two), but it is informative and helpful, and here, too, all the texts are printed in Latin, French, English and German. The whole production reveals considerable musicological expertise, as many of Charpentier's works are still only available in manuscript.
Last but not least there is the excellent recorded sound which leaves absolutely nothing to be desired."