Couperin: Lecons de tenebres / Theatre of Early Music

Release Date: 10/25/2005
Label: BIS
Catalog Number: BIS-CD-1346
Performer: Daniel Taylor
Orchestra/Ensemble: Theatre of Early Music
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

In Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews

Close your eyes, and try to imagine: 300 years ago, in a very dark, forbidding church, the service goes on and on. Fifteen candles are extinguished, one by one, at the closing of each psalm. Shadows enfold the congregation, and in the midst of this eerie backdrop, two high voices sing their lament. The music is solemn, pure, and deeply moving.

Beautiful? Most certainly. But also very distant from our own busy, frivolous reality.

Unlike a lot of the Baroque repertoire, these are pieces that require getting used to, or at least the willingness to spend some tranquil time immersed in a world of devotion. So be prepared: this is not music that grabs you right away, that makes you feel like singing or dancing. But for all who need to pray (religiousness aside!), this might be just the right Easter gift (the careful production by BIS is an added bonus: excellent liner notes by Jean-Paul Vachon, sound engineering that effectively captures the aural atmosphere of a church, and apt graphic design).

Originally, the Tenebrae lessons for the Holy Week were intended to arouse feelings of the deepest contrition. Held in the middle of the night (at around 3 :00 am), when darkness was complete (hence the Tenebrae ), the lessons were sung to very sad texts attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, as part of a mass performed with great dramatic flair, including the flickering light of candles which were then put out, symbolizing Jesus?s abandonment by his apostles. But humanity is mundane, of course. Little by little, the ceremony gained more earthly overtones. First, it was held at a more convenient time?in the afternoon. Then it became a showcase for the famous singers of the day, who could thus show off their piousness (and their beautiful tone!) to a very large audience.

In the 18th century, many important composers wrote versions of Leçons . Couperin´s remaining three pieces (of a group of nine) are the best known nowadays, and with good reason. In the intimate setting of a chamber work, Couperin achieves what a more grandiose-minded composer might not have: to convey true solitude, true repentance, and true sorrow.

For a long time, Couperin?s Leçons de ténèbres remained the province of the aficionado. In the past decades, however, they seem to have gained a surprising popularity, and some beautiful recordings have come to light, including excellent ones by Gerard Lesne/Steve Dugardin and James Bowman/Michael Chance, which, as in the present version by Theatre of Early Music, also resort to the unusual voices of two countertenors (normally, the leçons are sung by two sopranos). The advantage: a darker tone, sweeter and less lyrical, without the sharper edge we find so often in women?s voices. This, in itself, would be a point of interest. Notwithstanding the tough competition, the Theatre of Early Music holds its own, and manages to create a very moving rendering of the work, as well as of the sublime Magnificat included in the package. Both singers are first-rate, and although their individuality is always retained, their voices blend beautifully. Blaze and Taylor show their intimacy with the style?no mechanical vibrato here, or extravagant feats of virtuosity. They sing with simplicity and fluency, and with an austerity that fits the text without ever becoming frigid. The accompanying instrumentalists are equally masterful and discreet, each calmly serving the music.

For a long time, theologians spent their days discussing the sex of the angels. After hearing this CD, I am inclined to agree with those who held that heavenly creatures must have been male.

FANFARE: Laura Rónai
Works on This Recording
1. Leçons de tenébres by François Couperin
Performer: Daniel Taylor (Countertenor)
Orchestra/Ensemble: Theatre of Early Music
Period: Baroque
Written: 1713-1717 ; Paris, France
2. Magnificat by François Couperin
Performer: Daniel Taylor (Countertenor)
Orchestra/Ensemble: Theatre of Early Music
Period: Baroque
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