CHARPENTIER Prélude pour ce que l’on voudra. In odorem unguentorum. Beati omnes qui timent Dominum. O sacramentum pietatis. Pie Jesu. Super flumina Babylonis. Gratiarum actiones pro restituta Regis sanitate. Magdalena lugens. Supplicatio pro defunctis. LA GUERRE Sonata I • Ens Correspondances • ZIG-ZAG ZZT100601 (63:31 Text and Translation)
In 1672, Lully purchased a royal privilege (or license) from PierreRead more Perrin to establish the Académie Royale de Musique, for the performance of French operas in Paris. Soon thereafter he and his associates pursued a dual course of activity, setting up similar institutions in other French cities, and securing a series of royally granted patents and ordinances to prevent other entrepreneurs from doing the same. Lully also made sure that his were the only operas to be given—in effect, securing a national monopoly on operatic music. He was thus able to keep major potential rivals in the field from drawing public attention to themselves during his lifetime; the most notable of these, by all contemporary accounts, was Charpentier. But while you can keep a composer out of the opera house, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opera house can be kept out of his other music. Or to put it less anachronistically, quite a number of the many petits motets Charpentier composed over his opera-less years evinced an Italianate concern for the sensuous line, the dramatic clash of tonalities, and the same expressiveness that informed the seconda prattica.
Several excellent examples of this can be heard on this album. The Gregorian melody of Pie Jesu is given a richly contrapuntal accompaniment whose harmonic movement at times recalls Alessandro Grandi—or Francesco Cavalli, when it veers suddenly into heightened recitative at the line “Qui pro peccatis hominum.” The opening instrumental phrases of Magdalena lugens are shaped such they could almost come from a French folk song, but the soprano’s first words have the cadence of a Florentine aria; and when the text switches from narrative to first-person with “O amor meus, cor et delitium,” with the tempo in effect suddenly halving as the conversational style gives way to a poignant, floating theme, we could be listening to a work by Benedetto Ferrari. O sacramentum pietatis, a motet for the elevation of the Host, divides into a plea-like aria in two verses, its inner harmonies warmed by a pair of flutes, followed by a prayer set in heightened recitative, and attentive to the irregular rhythms of speech. If some melodic-harmonic progressions recall contemporary French models, the overall result brings to mind the criticism of Charpentier’s contemporary, the author and musician Le Cerf de la Viéville, who referred to the composer acerbically as an “ardent imitator of the Italian manner.”
It is easy to understand why Lully would regard the author of such an extraordinary mini-opera in sacred cloth as this Supplicatio pro defunctis as a threat to his hegemony, assuming he knew the piece. The inspiration is as high throughout the album. There are only two instrumentals offered: one a prélude of somber beauty, the other a sonata written in the mid 1690s by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. The liner notes claim her to be the “very first French composer to have written a sonata,” but this is impossible to ascertain, given that at the same time Jean-Féry Rebel (who would create the first stand-alone ballets) and Sébastien de Brossard were experimenting in this genre, as well. What can be said with certainty is that La Guerre’s Sonata I usually finds a good balance between extended counterpoint and attractive homophonic themes. If it lacks the fire of Rameau and the fancy of Couperin, it yet has a gravitas all its own.
This is the first album by Ensemble Correspondances. The group consists of violins, flutes, theorbos, one bass violin and bass viol de gamba each, three singers, and a director, Sébastien Daucé, who also plays harpsichord and organ. Their performances are stylish, though I feel that tempos in La Guerre’s Sonata could have used more animation in faster sections. Technically, there’s nothing to complain about, and like most professional ensembles playing this music today, they are aware of the variety of appropriate ornaments and their application. If I have any significant, overall complaint, it’s about the resonant and moderately cavernous sound. For the sacred pieces this would seem appropriate, as at least some of Charpentier’s works of this sort were written for the Messe du Dauphin held daily in the royal chapel. But the sonata lacks vividness and definition; and if the sopranos are always bright and distinct, their bass colleague is frequently lost to hearing in the Beati omnes qui timent Dominum. (I don’t think the problem is necessarily him, as a better balance between the vocalists is obtained in the Supplicatio.)
That aside, this is definitely a recommendable release. Charpentier composed a great deal, and much of what he wrote was preserved. Little of it has been recorded, however, so every bit counts. Especially when the performers are as pleasant to hear as Ensemble Correspondances.