Charpentier Brossard Sacred Christmas Music HMM902707

Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730)
[Elevatio] O miraculum!
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
In Nativitatem Domini Canticum (H 416)
In Nativitate Domini N[ost]ri Jesu Christi Canticum (H 421)
Messe de minuit (H 9)
Joseph est bien marié (from H 534)
Alma redemptoris mater (H 44)
Laissez paître vos bêtes (from H 534)
Te Deum (H 147)
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
rec. 2022 (?), La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download
Harmonia Mundi HMM902707 [81]

Marc-Antoine Charpentier is a unique figure in French music history. Arguably the greatest composer of his time, he was never in the service of the court. He may also have been the greatest dramatic talent of his time, but only composed one opera. His forays into the music for the stage were cut short by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the ‘pope’ of opera in his time. He was also the only composer who wrote works that today are ranked among the genre of the ‘oratorio’, although he himself did not use that word. They were modelled after the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi, which he had heard during his stay in Italy. And that brings us to another feature of the man and his music: the strong Italian influence which comes to the fore in so many works. He was not unique in his openness towards the Italian style, but more than others, he did not hide his Italian leanings. The disc under review includes two ‘oratorios’ for Christmastide; in the track-list in New Grove, they are listed under the heading ‘dramatic motets’. The most correct title is histoire sacrée.

Quite a number of such works are intended for Christmastide, and several of them have the words “In nativitate(m)” in their title, which makes it not easy to keep them apart. In addition to the oratorios, Charpentier also composed some ‘pastorales’; the Ensemble Correspondances recorded the Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (H 483) in 2016. The two oratorios included here are different in size and scope.

In Nativitatem Domini Canticum (H 416) is divided into two sections. The first brings us to the time of the Old Testament, when the people sigh for the coming of Christ. It is a dialogue between the chorus of the righteous and one of them who comforts them and urges them not to be “consumed by grief”. The two parts are separated by an instrumental piece, called Nuit – Réveil des Bergers (Night – Awakening of the Shepherds), which is modelled after the sommeil which appears in a number of Lully’s operas. The second part then focuses on the message of the angel – sung by a haute-contre – to the shepherds. His message is followed by a chorus of angels; then a shepherd (tenor) urges them to go to Bethlehem. A march of the shepherds is followed by a chorus, in which they worship baby Jesus. The piece ends with a chorus which urges the audience to “rejoice and be glad in our Saviour”.

In Nativitate Domini N[ost]ri Jesu Christi Canticum (H 421) is much shorter and is entirely about the shepherds. It opens with a short solo of the Historicus – a role that we find in many of Carissimi’s oratorios, comparable with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, sung here by a mezzo-soprano – who tells that the people are sleeping, “oppressed with their cares”. A chorus of shepherds then sings the words we know from the Gospel of St Luke: the shepherds were watching over their flocks, and then an angel of the Lord stood by them. Now, the role of the angel is scored for soprano. After his announcement, the shepherds go to Bethlehem, as the Historicus reports. Again we hear a chorus of shepherds, worshipping the newborn and expressing what his birth means to the world.

There has always been a close connection between Christmas and popular culture. That is partly due to the important role of the shepherds in the narrative of Jesus’s birth. It has resulted in a large repertoire of songs, whose content has sometimes little to do with the actual story of Christmas. In the English-speaking world, such songs are known as ‘carols’; their French counterparts are noëls. The origin of these songs often goes back as far as the Middle Ages. They gradually became part of the liturgy. Until the beginning of the 17th century, they were sung during the Offertory; then the ecclesiastical authorities tried to put an end to this tradition. As a way of compensation, organists started to play variations on these songs during the Offertory. In Charpentier’s oeuvre they are well represented.

The main work which includes such carols is the Messe de minuit for two groups of singers and instrumentalists. A number of noëls are used as basis for the polyphonic fabric. In the Kyrie, for instance, three different carols appear: Joseph est bien marié, Or nous dites Marie and Une jeune pucelle. In total eleven noëls are used, most of them have the rhythm of a dance. The sections of the mass are separated by other pieces, among them two from a set of instrumental arrangements of noëls: Joseph est bien marié and Laissez paître vos bêtes. The mass is not performed in a kind of liturgical reconstruction: the former noël is placed between Kyrie and Gloria, which in the mass are always sung without interruption. Moreover, for the Elevation Sébastien Daucé selected a setting of O miraculum by Sébastien de Brossard, which is placed at the start of the programme, not where it would belong liturgically. Between Gloria and Credo, we hear the antiphon Alma redemptoris mater.

The Office of Matins on Holy Eve closed with the Te Deum. This text was often set at the occasion of military victories or other stately events, mostly with trumpets in the orchestra. The probably best-known Te Deum is from Charpentier’s pen, but he has written more than that famous piece, which has the number H 146 in the catalogue of his works. The setting here is more modest in scoring: it requires five solo voices, four-part tutti, strings and basso continuo. This work may also have been written for the celebration of a military victory, but Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes, mentions that there are good reasons to assume that it had a liturgical function as well and may have been intended for Christmastide. “While the initial verse, ‘Te Deum laudamus’ is not put to music and must be sung in plain chant, its effectiveness, although undoubtedly festive – with notably the presence of violins -, its proportions and its style, modest for a Te Deum, do not give it the brilliance that a royal victory would require, and are better suited to a more functional framework. Finally, in the composer’s Mélanges autographes, the work immediately precedes the series of instrumental noëls H. 534 and the Grandes Antiennes O de l’Avent H. 36-43, which therefore makes it compatible with the celebration of Christmas 1693.”

In the 1980s and 1990s it was William Christie, who with his ensemble Les Arts Florissants put Charpentier on the map. We are indebted to him for many fine recordings which attested to the fact that Charpentier was one of the great composers of the baroque era. There is still much to discover, and nowadays, the Ensemble Correspondances takes the lead in the search for more masterpieces from his pen. Each of its recordings to date have been excellent. This disc is another one to treasure. I noticed some names among the singers I had not seen before, but they fit perfectly in the ensemble. This is music-making at the highest level, both in ensemble and in the solos.

This is the perfect disc to musically celebrate Christmas.

Johan van Veen

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