Charles-Joseph van Helmont (1715-1790)
Leçons de Ténèbres
Scherzi Musicali/Nicolas Achten (organ)
rec. 2022, Sint-Hilariuskerk, Bierbeek, Belgium
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
Ricercar RIC454 
It has taken some time before the music written in the Austrian Netherlands – today known as Belgium – in the 18th century has been given serious attention. In the early days of historical performance practice, even its Belgian representatives only sporadically performed and recorded such repertoire. Among the best-known ‘Belgian’ composers were the members of the Loeillet family. In the last fifteen years or so this has changed. Quite a number of discs have been released with works by composers such as De Croes, Van Maldere, Bréhy and the members of the Fiocco family. One of the ensembles which explores this repertoire is Scherzi Musicali. It has recorded, for instance, motets by Joseph Hector Fiocco and Jean-Noël Hamal. The disc under review here is devoted to Charles-Joseph van Helmont, and includes his complete Leçons de Ténèbres.
Van Helmont was born in Brussels in 1715 and received his first musical education as a choirboy under Pierre Hercule Bréhy at the collegiate church of St Michel et Ste Gudule in Brussels where, at the age of 18, he succeeded Josse Boutmy as titular organist. In 1737 he was appointed choirmaster at the Notre Dame de la Chapelle, and when Joseph Hector Fiocco died in 1741, he succeeded him as music director at St Gudule. He held this post until 1777, when he resigned in favour of his son Adrien Joseph.
Van Helmont’s extant oeuvre is pretty large: the library of Brussels Conservatory includes around 525 manuscripts of mostly sacred works, written over a period of more than 40 years. Hardly anything of that output is available on disc. The present disc includes a part of his oeuvre which represents a very important genre of music for Passiontide: settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, known in French as Leçons de Ténèbres. The Lamentations were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah to express the sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. In them the prophet doesn’t hide the fact that this was the result of the people turning away from God. Therefore when the Christian Church used these Lamentations to express grief over the passion and death of Jesus each part was concluded with the phrase: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God”. The Lamentations became a part of the Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday (triduum sacrum), taking place in the early hours of the morning. Originally sung to plainchant, from the 15th century onwards composers started to set them polyphonically.
Many Italian and French composers of the 17th and 18th century wrote settings of the Lamentations. Today, especially French Leçons de Ténèbres are frequently performed. The best-known are the three by François Couperin; other settings are by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Michel-Richard de Lalande. However, there are many more, and in recent years some other settings have been recorded, for instance by Michel Lambert. Last year a recording of the Lamentationes Hebdomadae Sanctae by Joseph-Hector Fiocco was released (Ramée RAM 2105), performed by the Ensemble Bonne Corde. It makes sense to mention these settings, as van Helmont seems to have been inspired by them.
In 1737 van Helmont composed a complete set of nine Leçons; these were intended for performance at the Notre Dame de la Chapelle, where he had only limited forces at his disposal. All of them are scored for soprano and basso continuo. These pieces are written in the French tradition but differ in several respects from the settings of his time and earlier. In French settings, the Hebrew letters are set as often long vocalises, with mostly a rather limited range. Most of van Helmont’s settings are through-composed, without a division in different sections. The Hebrew letters are mostly little more than the opening of a verse, and set to a few notes. Their range is also often wider than in French settings. The closing phrase is also mostly not treated separately. This explains why these Leçons are rather short: the longest takes five minutes. Stylistically they show the influence of Italy, as the treatment of the text is unashamedly dramatic, when its content asks for it, and harmony is used for expressive reasons.
In the two settings from 1756 van Helmont goes some steps further. Here the influence of Fiocco is most obvious: one of the features of the latter’s settings are the obbligato parts for cello. Van Helmont did the same in his two Leçons of 1756. The Troisième leçon du Vendredy saint is a reworking of the setting of 1737, and here the cello is the dialogue partner of the voice. The Troisième leçon du Jeudy Saint shows an even stronger influence of the Italian style. Some of the Hebrew letters are treated as opera arias, for instance the third Beth.
If one has French settings by the composers mentioned above in his ears, one may be surprised to hear these much more dramatic settings, which are pretty far away from the elegance of their French counterparts. van Helmont’s Leçons have a very individual character; it may be interesting to compare them with Fiocco’s settings (I have not heard the Ramée disc yet). In any case, they fully deserve to be recorded, and Scherzi Musicali has done a great job by performing them. The singers and instrumentalists underline the dramatic nature of these setttings, for instance with strong dynamic constrasts, the highlighting of single words and phrases and a relatively fast tempo. The vocal parts are shared by Wei-Lian Huang, Griet De Geyter and Déborah Cachet, who have different voices, but are all excellently suited to these works. The ensemble’s director, Nicolas Achten, plays the basso continuo on a large organ, and that contributes to the impact these Leçons make. In between he plays some of van Helmont’s fugues, and does so very well.
This disc is a major contribution to the discography of music for Passiontide. The Leçons de Ténèbres are excellent pieces, which whet the appetite for more works from van Helmont’s pen. Let’s hope that other parts of his oeuvre are going to be recorded, and in the same quality as that which is offered here by Scherzi Musicali.
Johan van Veen
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Première leçon du Merchredy Saint (1737)
Seconde leçon du Merchredy Saint (1737)
Troisième leçon du Merchredy Saint (1737)
Première leçon du Jeudy Saint (1737)
Seconde leçon du Jeudy Saint (1737)
Troisième leçon du Jeudy Saint (1737)
Troisième leçon du Jeudy Saint (1756)
Première leçon du Vendredy Saint (1737)
Seconde leçon du Vendredy Saint (1737)
Troisième leçon du Vendredy Saint (1737)
Troisième leçon du Vendredy Saint (1756)