Friday 27 September 2013

Musique Sacree - Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Musique Sacree: NCR 1387Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Musique Sacree: NCR 1387
Having recorded a disc of motets by Francois Couperin (see my review), Edward Higginbottom and the choir of New College Oxford have turned their attention to the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and shown that the French style is indeed something at which they excel. The new disc, on their own Novum label, presents three substantial motets by Charpentier, Conserva me, Domine H230, Caceilia Virgo et Martyr H397 and De Profundis Clamavi H189 performed by the choir of New College Oxford and Oxford Baroque conducted by Edward Higginbottom with soloists taken from the choir and Robyn Allegra Parton as a guest soprano soloist.

Charpentier is one of the great under appreciated composers of French 17th century music (or should that be one of the great composers of under appreciated French 17th century music). He does not figure in any of the major historical narratives, failing to get an appointment at the Chapelle Royale in 1683 as illness made him drop out of the competition and failing to be able to mount opera because of Lully's monopoly. In fact, Charpentier seems to have been the sort of guy who simply got on with things, even if not centre stage. So he developed productive relationships with the patron Mlle de Guise and with the Jesuit community in Paris. By the time Charpentier was appointed director of music to the Jesuit Order in Paris he had the reputation as the city's foremost composer of sacred music working outside the court.

And he wrote a considerable amount of it, which the composer gathered into 500 manuscript 'cahiers' containing over 4000 pages and over 550 separate items (both sacred and secular).  On this disc Higginbottom simply dips a toe into the repertoire, performing the Latin oratorio Caecilia virgo et martyr from 1677-78 , De profundis clamavi from 1683 and Conserva me, Domine from 1699.

They open with Conserve, Domine written during Charpentier's short tenure as music-director of La Sainte-Chapelle. The work is written for five part choir (dessus, haute-contre, taille, basse-taille and basse which roughly correspond to treble, high-tenor, tenor, baritone and bass) and four part strings, from the five choral voices Charpentier selected flexible groupings of soloists, here taken by members of the choir including the treble Inigo Jones who impressed me on the choir's Couperin disc.

The piece is relatively small scale compared to the grand motets written for the King, but finely and imaginatively wrought with a lot of lovely detail. Charpentier was adept at combining imagination and craftsmanship into something special. The first movement has soloists alternating with full choir in a nice flowing texture with a good firm 'continental' sound from the trebles. In terms of style, the performers sound as if they have been living with this music for ever, testament to Higginbottom's clear love for the music of the period. The second movement is quite a gentle piece, there is a stylish intertwining of solo voices.  This continues into the final movement, where the gentle but stylish solo are answered by a lively full chorus.

Charpentier studied for three years in Rome with Carissimi and his Latin oratorio is clearly inspired by Carissimi's example. In fact not only did Charpentier write 35 Latin oratorios but he wrote four on the subject of St. Cecilia, all using substantially the same text. H 397 is the longest. The Latin oratorio was a vehicle for teaching, with the story presented through dramatic dialogue. Here we have Caecilia a noble Roman (Robyn Allegra Parton), Valerianus her suitor (Oliver Longland), Tiburtius Valerianus' brother (Guy Cutting) and Almachius the tyrant (Patrick Edmond), plus two narrators (Guy Cutting and David Lee). There are also two choral groups, the main choir (the choir of the Faithful) and a group of trebles (the choir of Angels).

Compared to the two motets on the disc, the piece has an austere hieratic feeling. It starts with a stylish instrumental prelude before the first movement in which Caecilia tells Valerianus of her guardian angel and converts him. The dialogue is quite formal, with Cutting's lyric tenor and Parton's robust soprano. The chorus of the faithful then respond with a stately chorus. Further dialogue follows, in which Caecilia and Valerianus convert his brother, with a lovely duet between Cutting and Parton. Part one finishes with a flowing and rather plangent chorus  Part two opens with a graceful instrumental prelude, followed by a dialogue between Almachius and Caecilia, but though the recitative is quite formal Parton's solo has a rather attractive dance rhythm underlying it; the beauty of the performance is the way Higginbottom brings out all of these details.

The final dialogue with Caecilia just before her martyrdom, sees Parton by turns plangent and decisive before the final touching solo. In the following chorus, the full choir (the faithful) alternates with the chorus of angels (the trebles) with the texture alternating between the slow moving full chorus and the rather dancing angels, leading to a final ensemble for the angels with the four trebles stylish and impressive as the voices intertwine. The final chorus is lively and remarkably celebratory.

De Profundis Clamavi is one of seven settings by Charpentier, this is the most extended of them and was written for the funeral ceremonies of Marie Therese, Louis XIV's wife. There were a number of services and it is not certain for which Charpentier's motet was written. It is on a large scale, with a double solo quartet and six-part choir, and flutes added to the strings. The work opens with a prelude which sounds very French, with great elan. There follows a very plangent movement for the double quartet of soli, full of overlapping lines, before the full choir joins in.

The following movement uses six solo voices; first a solo treble answered by flutes, next two solo trebles answered by flutes and then the male soloists answered by flutes, creating a very subtle and sophisticated movement. The next movement is a choral one, with a lovely sprung rhythm, followed by a rather dark textured movement with two treble and two bass solo contrasting with the flutes. The penultimate movement uses three treble and one haut-contre solos, rather solemn, again with something of the dance in the sprung rhythms. A sophisticated and profoundly beautiful movement. Finally Requiem in aeternam, a large scale choral movement, full of fine craft and expression. There are moments when you could imagine soloists with more experienced voices, but these performances are given by singers who clearly have Charpentier's music under their skin.

Oxford Baroque makes an equal contribution to the performance, supporting the singer and providing some very stylish instrumental performances, the fundament to those sprung rhythms.

The CD booklet includes full texts and translations, plus a highly informative article by Edward Higginbottom. I cannot recommend this disc too highly,  you feel the performer's live and breathe 17th century French music and I do hope that we can expect more Charpentier from them.

Musique Sacree
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c1643 - 1704) - Conserva me, Domine H230 (1699) [13.30]
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c1643 - 1704) - Caecilia virgo et martyr H397 (1677-78) [34.31]
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c1643 - 1704) - De profundis clamavi H189 (1683) [24.20]
Choir of New College Oxford
Oxford Baroque
Edward Higginbottom (conductor)
Recorded in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 10-12 July 2012 and 11 February 2013
novum NCR1387 1CD [72.30]

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