Monday, 25 March 2013

Couperin - Trois Lecons de Tenebres - Kings Consort

For their second CD on their new Vivat label, Robert King and the King's Consort have moved to the opposite extreme to their first disc of large-scale 19th century sacred music with orchestra accompaniment. On this disc there are just two singers (soprano Carolyn Sampson and mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland) and three instrumentalists (Susanne Heinrich bass viol, Lynda Sayce theorbo and Robert King chamber organ) performing early 18th century French sacred music. Francois Couperin's Trois Lecons de Tenebres programmed in a highly satisfying and intelligent sequence with instrumental works by Marin Maria and Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, plus Couperin's Motet pour le jour de Paques and Magnificat.

The disc was recorded at French baroque pitch (A = 392), with the instrumentalists playing modern copies of French instruments of the period. The lower pitch in particular, gives the performance a wonderfully modulated richness. Caroline Sampson sings Couperin's first lesson, Marianne Beate Kielland the second with the pair joining for the third. The other two Couperin pieces are also sung by both singers.


Couperin's Trois Lecons de Tenebres are amongst the small amount of his surviving sacred music; all small in scale in contrast to the larger scale settings of a previous generation, reflecting the change in fashions. Couperin's three Tenebrae settings are all for Maundy Thursday (if he wrote settings for for other days of Holy Week then they have not survived). They were composed for the abbey of Longchamp and would have been performed on the evening of Holy Wednesday. The major abbeys and churches attracted quite fashionable congregations at this period, after all the theatres were shut; so we should imagine this highly coloured, richly dissonant music being sung by well known soloists. 

The two singers are beautifully matched, both sing with a fine sense of line as Couperin's glorious melismatic music unwinds. French pronunciation is used, though neither singer actually sounds French. Both have a a focussed brightness to the voice, nicely modulated by the baroque pitch. And both, within the confines of the style, have quite a dramatic approach to the music. Kielland has a slightly fuller, richer tone but her lovely clear top matches Sampson's nicely and the two complement each other wonderfully Both have an expressive way with the ornamentation and each is, in her way, very affecting. When they combine in the glorious final lesson, the effect is simply magical, combining the virtues of the two preceding lessons with that little bit of something extra.

Of course, with these pieces the problem is what else to include on the recording. Coming in at something under 45 minutes, a significant filler is need. What King and his forces have done is to give us a highly thoughtful and satisfying sequence.

First comes Marin Marais' Tombeau for putative teacher Monsieur de Saint Colombe, published in 1701 in book 2 of Marais' Pieces de Viole Whether or not Marais actually studied with Saint Colombe, the Tombeau is profoundly moving work, here given a richly expressive performance by Heinrich with Sayce and King. Heinrich, an award-winning German viol player, makes something haunting and highly evocative of the piece without ever milking it. A richly satisfying and civilised performance. She follows this with Marais' Chaconne in A major from the fifth volume of his Pieces de Viole published in 1725. This is a short, but elegant piece which weaves its way round over 25 repetitions of the same simple bass line.

As if moving through Holy Week, we go from intense, melancholic contemplation to the joy of Easter day, with Couperin's Motet pour le jour de Paques. This was probably written for the Chapelle Royale in around 1690 (definitely before 1703). It is a modest chamber celebration of Easter day, the two sopranos intertwine delightfully and joyfully in the opening section, then each has a more subdued solo before the highly expressive duet conclusion.

This is followed by a beautifully melancholy Prelude in E minor by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils, who may be related to Marais' teacher. We know little, except that Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils lived in Edinburgh and the piece survives in a manuscript in Durham Cathedral library. It is another hauntingly melancholy work, in which Heinrich shows quite how fully expressive a solo viol can be.

Finally, Couperin's Magnificat comes from the same manuscript at the Easter motet. It mixes solo and duets to create a highly satisfying whole, finishing with a joyful Gloria. This piece was a lovely discovery and the performance has an expressive intimacy, which allows you to imagine that you might be overhearing the work in Versailles. 

The Cd booklet includes an article by Robert King along with complete texts and translations. The disc is available from Vivat direct as a CD or download, including studio master (FLAC) quality.

Performances are superb throughout, Sampson and Kielland are notable for the way that they blend but also display two independent voices, with the suspensions pitched precisely in a highly affecting manner. King, Heinrich and Sayce provide excellent support in the Couperin, with Heinrich being given a glorious solo role in the instrumental pieces.

As notable as the performances is the thoughtful way that the programme has been put together. The result is highly satisfying, and the various components combine in a profoundly expressive way.

Francois Couperin 'Le Grand' (1668 -1733) - Trois Lecons de Tenebres (1714) [41.43]
Marin Marais (1656 - 1728) - Tombeau pour Sier de Ste Colombe (1701) [7.28]
Marin Marias (1656 - 1728) - Chaconne in A major (1725) [2.51]
Francois Couperin 'Le Grand' (1668 - 1733) - Motet pour je jour de Paques (c1690) [7.29]
Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils (c.1660 - 1710) - Prelude in E minor [5.00]
Francois Couperin 'Le Grand' (1668 - 1733) - Magnificat (c 1690) [12.04]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano)
Kings Consort (Susanne Heinrich - bass viol, Lynda Sayce - theorbo, Robert King - chamber organ)
Recorded at St. Andrew's Church, Toddington, UK, March 5-7 2011
VIVAC102 1CD [78.35]

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