couperin lecons bis

Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2005 and the recording is still available.

François Couperin (1668-1733)
Magnificat (before 1702)
Leçons de Ténèbres (1713-1717)
Theatre of Early Music
rec. 2003, St. Silas Church, London
BIS BISCD1346 [59]

The service of Tenebrae was originally celebrated at Matins during Holy Week; this took place at around 3.00 a.m., hence the name tenebrae (darkness). The service was divided into three Nocturns, each of which consisted of three psalms, three anthems and three lessons followed by responses. The lessons are taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

In late 17th century France, it became popular for composers to provide musical settings of these lessons. The popularity of the service caused it to be moved to the afternoon of the previous day and the service was particularly observed in convents. The first musical settings come from such composers are Bouzignac (before 1643) and Michel Lambert (c. 1660). Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed about forty settings in the period 1670 to 1704 and François Couperin composed his settings in the period 1713-1717; these three surviving Lessons are all that we have of Couperin’s output. These French composers developed a particular genre of these settings, using just a few solo voices and continuo, setting the Hebrew letters, which prefix the verses, as long melismas and ending each lesson with the words Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God). The pieces were written for use by soprano voices in a convent; some convents employed professional sopranos for these services, utilising female opera singers who were otherwise unemployed as theatres were closed in Holy Week.

Couperin’s settings have been recorded by a number of groups including Christoph Rousset’s Les Talents Lyriques and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Performances increasingly reflect our more developed knowledge of the performance practice for French music of this period, thanks in no small way to Christie and his group. Christie’s superb recording uses sopranos Patricia Petibon and Sophie Daneman, who sing with great purity and use French pronunciation for the Latin.

But there is also another recorded tradition, a more English one. These pieces were recorded in the 1960s by Alfred Deller. Deller sings the pieces with his customary acuity and superb control of tone, enunciating the text using standard Latinate pronunciation.

It is perhaps Deller’s example, rather than William Christie’s, that Robin Blaze and Daniel Taylor are following on their new recording with Taylor’s group Theatre of Early Music. Like Deller, they use standard Latinate pronunciation and their performance shows all of the shapely care that we would expect from these fine singers, without ever utilising any of the French Baroque mannerisms familiar from other recent recordings.

Blaze and Taylor have slightly differing voices. Blaze’s voice has a rather English edge to it, something I rather like. Taylor’s has something of the more continental softer edges, but both seem to have a commonality of technique and purpose in these pieces. Their voices blend beautifully, though always remaining distinct. Each takes one of the solo Lessons, Taylor takes the upper part in the Lesson for two voices and Blaze takes the upper part in the Magnificat (also for two voices).

The result is some music-making of a high order. Both singers take care of the long lines of the music, but give shape to individual moments within phrases. There is just the hint of mannerism in the way that, in the Third Lesson (for two voices), they almost croon the melismatic settings of the Hebrew letters. I found Blaze’s habit of developing vibrato on the longer notes a little disturbing; I am unsure whether this is deliberate or simply a vocal mannerism. Others, who are less affected by vibrato, will not be so troubled by this.

It is unfortunate that Taylor’s new group is called Theatre of Early Music, because dramatically theatrical is exactly what this performance is not. It is very English in the feel of its cool, well modulated lines. Many people will be happy with this music making of a high order and I will be returning to the disc. But I have a soft spot for the soprano versions of these pieces, and a preference for a performance more inflected by French Baroque mannerisms.

More seriously, I feel that the singer’s vocal lines could be invested with more intensity and emotion without damaging the sense of line itself. You only have to listen to Deller’s spine-tingling way with this music

Besides the Lessons, Blaze and Taylor give us a fine performance of the Magnificat, which dates from before 1702. A showier, less inward work than the Lessons; Blaze and Taylor respond well to its exuberance.

Blaze and Taylor are ably supported by gamba player Jonathan Manson and organist Lawrence Cummings. Having whetted our appetite with this fine recording of the well known Leçons de Ténèbres I hope that the group are able to go on to delight us with some of the lesser known items in this repertoire.

Robert Hugill

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Daniel Taylor (counter-tenor); Jonathan Manson (viola da gamba); Laurence Cummings (organ)