Charpentier magnificat CVS098

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
De profundis (H 189)
Magnificat (H 79)
Jacques Danican Philidor ‘Philidor le Cadet’ (1657-1708)
Appels de trompettes
Marches pour les trompettes seuls
La Fontainebleau
Batterie de timbales
Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Te Deum (H 146)
Gwendoline Blondeel, Cécile Achille (dessus), David Tricou (haute-contre), Mathias Vidal (taille), Geoffroy Buffière (basse-taille)
La Chapelle Harmonique/Valentin Tournet
rec. 2022, Chapelle Royale, Versailles, France
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS098

Another recording of Charpentier’s Te Deum, as if there were not already enough in the catalogue. It is certainly the most popular work by Charpentier, and arguably the best-known piece of the entire French Baroque. That is no surprise; apart from its brilliance, it is a piece of pomp and circumstance, with trumpets and timpani, which never fails to make an impression. A performance of the Te Deum is a perfect way to capture an audience.

The downside of a work’s popularity is that the rest of the composer’s oeuvre tends to be overlooked. Fortunately, especially in the last decades, more and more of Charpentier’s large output has been performed and recorded, and many masterworks from his pen have come to light. One could argue that in fact each of his works deserves the label ‘masterwork’. In the course of forty years of attending concerts and reviewing discs, I have never heard any piece by Charpentier that was not at least good; many are simply excellent. It is the tragedy of his life that he was never in the position to compose operas on a regular basis, due to the dominance of Jean-Baptiste Lully. His only opera, Médée, and his other music for the stage, such as the divertissements and incidental music, reveal his dramatic skills. These also come to the fore in the way he structures his sacred works. He was a master in highlighting specific moments and creating contrasts within a piece in the way he uses harmony but also in his scoring for voices and instruments.

The disc under review opens with a setting of Psalm 129 (130), De profundis clamavi. It is one of the seven penitential psalms, but also part of the prayers for the dead; for such occasions the text of the Psalm was followed by the opening of the Requiem mass: “Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis”. The importance of this text explains why Charpentier set it at least eight times. The setting performed here dates from 1683 and was performed in the wake of the death of Queen Marie Thérèse on 30 July. In the last months of that year several ceremonies took place which paid tribute to the late queen. Charpentier composed the Psalm together with the motet In obitum augustissimae nec non piissimae gallorum reginae lamentum.

The Psalm is scored for eight to nine voices, divided into a petit choeur, whose members take care of the solo episodes, and a grand choeur, with an instrumental ensemble of five string parts and two flutes. It opens with a symphonie, in which a descending minor sixth plays a key role. As one might expect, this section and the first verse are dominated by descending figures. In the first verse, Charpentier has set the opening words – “Out of the depth I have cried unto Thee, O Lord” – on a rising figure, in the way of an exclamatio, which creates a strong and dramatic contrast to the descending figures. After a short instrumental section the entire verse is repeated, with an extension of the number of parts, which emphasizes the urgency of this prayer. Next follows a sequence of sections, in which solo voices, petit choeur and grand choeur alternate, to different accompaniment of the orchestra. Very effective is the role of the flutes in in 6th verse, ‘A custodia matutina’. The closing section, with the text from the Requiem Mass, is split into two contrasting halves; the first is slow and restrained, the second reflects the light of the text: “and let light perpetual shine upon them”.

The second work is a setting of the Magnificat, one of the most-frequently set texts, as this canticle was part of Vespers. It was also often performed at special occasions. Again, it is no surprise to find ten settings in Charpentier’s oeuvre. The setting performed here has as its title Troisième Magnificat à 4 voix avec instruments; it was written in the early 1690s. It is scored for four voices and an ensemble of strings with two flutes. In this work, the choir is the dominating force. After an instrumental opening, the haute-contre opens the proceedings. Later the main solos are for bass (Et misericordia) and tenor (Suscepit Israel) respectively. The longest section of the work is the doxology.

The disc closes with the Te Deum; Charpentier wrote at least six settings, four of which have been preserved. Settings of the Te Deum were usually written for state occasions, and especially to sing the praise of kings, who were considered the representatives of God on earth. Like most Te Deums, this one contains parts for trumpets and drums. It is generally thought to be written on the occasion of the victory of France at Steinkerque, on 3 August 1692. The key of D major is highly appropriate, as it is characterised by Charpentier himself as “joyful and very warlike”. The text contains strong contrasts: for instance, a passage about the Last Judgement is followed by prayers for God’s mercy. These contrasts are fully exploited by the composer, both in the scoring and the affetti. Contrasts in music were something Charpentier was specifically interested in: “the very diversity is what creates perfection”. There cannot be any doubt that we see here the influence of his teacher, Giacomo Carissimi, who was especially famous for his oratorios, which had a strongly dramatic character – and, as observed above, Charpentier’s skills as a composer of operas also comes to the fore here. As everyone knows this work, there is no need to go into detail about its texture.

It is notable here that the Te Deum is preceded by four pieces for trumpets and timpani by Jacques Danican Philidor, which underlines the connection between the Te Deum and a military victory. “When the celebration was public and allowed for lavish musical means, there would be rolls of drums and kettledrums and even marches for trumpets to introduce the work, as in these pieces by Jacques Danican Philidor”, Catherine Cessac states in her liner-notes. The last item, Batterie de timballes, is a solo for kettledrums, and the prélude of Charpentier’s Te Deum follows attacca.

As I say above, there is quite a number of recordings of the Te Deum in the catalogue, and it is fair to say that we do not really need another one. The real significance of this disc is in the other two works, especially the magnificent and expressive De profundis. It receives an excellent performance here, which does full justice to the work’s depth. The Magnificat is different, and that is perfectly conveyed. Whereas in De profundis we can admire the contributions of the soloists, here it is the ensemble as a whole which can show its qualities. The Te Deum has the brilliance it requires, but I am not sure that the fast tempi which seem to be preferred these days are entirely appropriate. I think Hervé Niquet (Glossa, 2001) still holds the record as far as tempo is concerned, but Valentin Tournet comes pretty close. It is all very exciting, that’s for sure, but I think I prefer a little more modesty here.

The vocal and instrumental forces do an outstanding job, although some of the soloists are not entirely free of unnecessary vibrato, which slightly undermines some of the ensembles. However, overall I am happy with this disc, which further emphasizes the brilliance of a composer, whose life was not without tragedy, but who was certainly the best French composer of his time and left such a remarkable collection of superb music.

Johan van Veen

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