Francois COUPERIN (1688-1733) Trois Leçons de Ténèbres (1714)
First Leçon [17:41]
Second Leçon [12:44]
Third Leçon [11:54]
Lucy Crowe & Elizabeth Watts (sopranos) Sébastien de BROSSARD (1655-1730)
Trio Sonata in E minor [7:07]
Trio Sonata in A minor [5:04]
Stabat Mater [16:01]
La Nuova Musica, David Bates (director & organ continuo)
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, October 2015 HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807659 SACD [70:32]
Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres are settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which were written for Holy Week between 1713 and 1717. Like Tallis’ settings, which are better known in Britain, they begins with a long melisma on the letter of the Hebrew alphabet which opens the text, before singing through the verse. Unlike Tallis’ darkly contemplative choral version, however, Couperin gives us settings for one (the first and second Leçons) and for two (the third) sopranos which are brighter, more alluring and more sensual than you would expect from the dark tone of the text.
Having two soloists of the calibre of Lucy Crowe and Elizabeth Watts ensures that the vocal line positively gleams, and there is a beautifully limpid quality throughout. They are flexible yet also a little fragile, well suited to the pleading nature of the text. They are, more importantly, totally inside the conventions of the French Baroque, and their adoption of Gallicised Latin pronunciation adds to the air of authenticity.
The melismas that open each section are so weightlessly beautiful as to sound as though they come from a world of sensuality light years away from the topic of lamentation. Listen, for example, to the opening of track 6. It might as well be a love song in places. The second Leçon is more nostalgic in its subject matter, lamenting for the lost beauty of Jerusalem, and Couperin matches that in his archaic compositional style which echoes a technique for laments used by Purcell and Monteverdi.
Elizabeth Watts is more dramatic in delivery than Lucy Crowe, and there is more than a hint of the histrionics of tragédie lyrique to the second lesson, but that only increases its effectiveness. The blend of the two voices in the third Leçon is utterly magical.
Brossard’s Trio Sonatas provide some earnest instrumental variety. They're beautifully played, and the thin string tone adds a plangent air to what you find in the more explicitly penitential vocal music. His Stabat Mater plunges us into an altogether more dramatic landscape of austere emotion with much less intimacy than the Couperin. The choral moments are wonderfully atmospheric and also very distinctively French in style. The tenor soloist is particularly marvellous, especially in the Eja mater section.
This is interesting and less familiar repertoire which, in performances like these, deserves to find a wide audience.