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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Histoires Sacrées
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
rec. 2016, à la MC2, Grenoble, France and à la Maison de la Culture d’Amiens, France
DVD PCM Stereo, NTSC, Subtitles in French and English
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902280.81 [2 CDs: 160:51 + DVD: 98:21]

Everything about this release screams quality, with its 2 CDs and DVD slipped into a lavish 116 page hard back book, and I am glad to say that the performances live up to the production values of the presentation. In fact, I would go as far to say that this represents the finest release of Charpentier, if not all French baroque music that I have come across for quite a while. One for which Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé, and indeed Harmonia Mundi deserve the highest praise.

Charpentier’s Histoires Sacrées, or sacred histories, are in reality, dramatic religious scenes taken from the bible or the lives of the saints and set to music, three of which we are presented here, along with a number of shorter, but equally compelling works. Two of these works have strong female leads, perhaps due to the Duchess de Guise who had commissioned them, with wonderfully characterful portraits of these strong women. A real eye opener, which whilst not unique, is unusual for music of the period, with all the works featured here having Charpentier’s strong musicality present in abundance.

The first of the Histoires Sacrées presented here is Cæcilia, virgo et martyr octo vocibus, which dates from around 1677. This tells the story of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians, and an early Christian martyr. Although the well-known account of her story is now regarded as fictitious, the work is based upon it. Cecilia’s husband and brother are executed for converting to Christianity, with Cecilia following shortly afterwards. Perhaps the highpoint of this piece is the final Guay – Nolite flere fideles where firstly the angels claim that Cecilia has been ‘crowned by them’, before the rest of the chorus sing ‘Come, then, let us sing and exult in Cecilia’s victory.’ Quite wonderful in the way it incorporates Cecilia’s position among musicians.

The second of the Histoires deals with the story of another strong woman, this time the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, the Assyrian leader who was besieging the city of Bethulia. The story revolves around how the widow Judith saves the Children of Israel by cutting off the head of their nemesis, Holofernes. Starting with a rousing chorus from the besieging Assyrians the work progresses with dialogue among the Assyrians and the Israelites, as well as the cleaver use of a narrator, before we get Judith’s first solo. In part two, Judith tricks her way in to the Assyrian camp where she is taken before Holofernes who instantly falls in love with her. They retire to his tent where they wine and dine, and as he sleeps, Judith takes his sword from the end of his bed and cuts off his head. Judith escapes back to the Israelites and this leads to their final rousing chorus of jubilation. A harrowing story, which is treated sympathetically by Charpentier, with some wonderful sections which are matched by some beautiful singing especially by Caroline Weynants.

Mors Saülis et Jonathæ is linked to Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, H. 490, which was composed some six years later. The dialogue between Saul and Samuel is present in the first section of the Histoires Sacrées and also in the prologue of his Biblical opera, with both being treated differently. In this work the chorus has a key role with some important and telling interjections, but it is the soloists that shine, especially Lucile Richardot as the Witch of Endor who Saul visits early on in the work. However, it is David Cornillot’s portrayal of David’s lament on the death of Jonathan in the Seconde partie that really steals the show, with the emotion being almost tangible in his rendition.

The shorter dramatic works such as the Dialogus inter Christum et homines but especially the Dialogus inter Christum et peccatores, are also particularly fine. However, it is the Motet pour les trépassés à 8 on the first disc and the Élévation on the second disc that particularly shine. Here the dramatic style of the Histoires Sacrées is replaced with a more reverential style of singing, which reflects their more liturgical use. These shorter pieces are as important as the Histoires and certainly earn their place on this set. They help to show Charpentier as a more rounded composer, containing as they do some fine and imaginative settings of the words. This set is recommendable for the music and performance presented on the two CDs alone, especially when you consider that there is not a weak link in the performances but then, there is a bonus.

The bonus comes in a beautifully produced DVD – surprising as no mention of the disc appears on Harmonia Mundi’s website, so production details are limited. It was recorded live in the intimate surroundings of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles in 2016, with the limited space leading to a pared down set. The DVD include two of the works featured on the CDs, Judith, Sive Bethulia Liberata, and Cæcilia, Virgo Et Martyr. If anything, the performance of these two pieces really brings out the dramatic element of the works far more than you get from audio alone. Add to this the three short works and you get a real winner, with the harmonies of the three singers in the final Sub Tuum Praesidium, almost being worth the DVD’s production alone.

In reality I would have been exceptionally happy to have the CDs or the DVD alone, but to have both together takes this recording to the heights of ‘recording of the year’ status. This is especially true when you take into account the presentation, a 116-page lavish CD size hardback book, with the DVD in a sleeve inside the front cover and the two CDs inside the back cover. Notes are in French, English and German with an introduction by the expert on Charpentier and his music, Catherine Cessac, as well as full texts and translations. The recorded sound on the CDs is excellent as is the production of the video footage. The dramatic element of the music is brought out well on the audio version, only to be accentuated on the DVD. This is a must for all fans of French baroque and of eighteenth-century music in general.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc 1
Cæcilia, virgo et martyr octo vocibus, H. 397 [29:54]
Motet pour les trépassés à 8, H. 311 [8:51]
Dialogus inter Magdalenam et Jesum H. 423 [4:11]
Judith, sive Bethulia liberata, H. 391 [39:42]
Disc 2
Mors Saülis et Jonathæ, H. 403 [36:13]
Prelude pour Mementote peccatores, H. 425a [1:20]
Dialogus inter Christum et peccatores, H. 425 [8:44]
Dialogus inter Christum et homines, H. 417 [8:58]
Élévation, H. 408 [10:58]
Pestis mediolanensis, H. 398 [11:12]
O Sacramentum Pietatis, H. 274
Judith, Sive Bethulia Liberata, H. 391
Magdalena Lugens, H. 343
Cæcilia, Virgo Et Martyr, H. 397
Sub Tuum Praesidium, H. 28

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