Leçons de ténèbres by Couperin and Lambert Offer Wonderful Experiences at Versailles

FranceFrance Holy Week at Versailles III: Sophie Junker, Claire Lefilliâtre (sopranos); Anaïs Bertrand {bas-dessus); La Poème Harmonique (Vincent Dumestre, theorbo/director; Luca Peres, viola da gamba; Camille Delaforge, harpsichord/organ). Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 9pm, 20.4.2019. (CC)

Sophie Junker

Anonymous – Zelus domus tuae: Antienne. Salvum de fac Deus: Psalm 68. Versicule: Dum convenirent; Justificeris Domine

François Couperin – Leçons de ténèbres, interspersed with Messe solenelle: Tierce en taille; Cromorne en taille (both instrumental)

ClérambaultMiserere Mei Deus à 3

IV: Marc Mauillon (baritone); Myriam Rignol (viola da gamba); Thibaut Roussel (theorbo); Marouan Mankar-Bennis (harpsichord/organ).Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 10.30pm  20.4.2019 (CC)

PlainchantSicut ovis from Chants de l’Abbaye royale de Notre-Dame du Val de Grâce pour toutes les festes de l’année (Ballard, 1660); Jerusalem surge from Chants de l’Abbaye royale de Notre Dame du Val de Grâce pour toutes les festes de l’année (Ballard, 1660); Plange quasi virgo from Chants de l’Abbaye royale de Notre-Dame du Val de Grâce pour toutes les festes de l’année (Ballard, 1660); Christus factus est

Nicolas Hotman – Prélude (solo viola da gamba); Courante (solo theorbo); Sarabande (viola da gamba and theorbo)

LambertPremière Leçon du Troisième Jour; Deuxième Leçon du Troisième Jour; Troisième Leçon du Troisième Jour

Louis Couperin – Tombeau de Blancrocher (solo organ)

Here was a rare opportunity to experience, in one evening, two Leçons de ténèbres. These are settings, for performance during Holy Week, of texts from the Lamentations of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah around his despair at seeing the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem. Although originally part of Matins, from the time of Louis XIV onwards they were sung the evening before the intended day.

The three by François Couperin, which formed the main focus of the first event, are all we have from this composer: those for ‘Mercredy Saint’. Alone, they come in at between 10 and 15 minutes each, but the expansion heard here made for a most satisfying experience. This particular programme, with minor alterations (the interspersing excerpts from the Messe solenelle were replaced by ‘Elévations’ by Couperin himself and Nicolas Lebègue) was first given by La Poème Harmonique in April 2009 in Poland and has since been performed in the Louvre, in Mexico, Cologne and New York and, in December 2016, in the present venue (that concert was broadcast by France Musique; the soloists on that occasion were Eva Zaïcik and Lucile Richardot).

A line of lit candles at the front of the stage were extinguished, one by one, during the concert (one candle was naughty enough to self-snuff, so the person extinguishing the flames had to mime). Placing the François Couperin Leçons de ténèbres in the middle of the programme enabled them to take centre stage, with the first plainchant performed from the back of the chapel, initially voices only, then with organ. The psalm, Salvum me fac Deus, was a tremendously powerful piece, tender, interior and anguished. The pure single line of Dum Convenirent led into the magnificently fluent lines of the Leçons themselves. Highly melismatic meditations on plainchant, they seem to operate outside of time in a good performance; and this performance delivered a near-transcendental experience.

The vocalists were superbly chosen. Sophie Junker, who had impressed so strongly in the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, was in equally mesmerising form and joined by the superb soprano Claire Lefilliâtre (who as part of the Ensemble da Pacem contributed to an excellent disc of Campra duets on Arion: see Kirk McElhearn’s Musicweb-International review here). What was interesting – and magical – was how Junker’s voice seemed to meld with the sounds around her. Particularly impressive was the opening of the second section (‘Beth,’ as the verses follow the Hebrew alphabet; ‘Plorans, ploravit’ is the text). The large spaces between verses held silences thick with concentration.

Camille Delaforge was the organist, providing the interludes separating the Leçons in perfect style.  The Miserere à 3 by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1767-1749), which closed the first concert of the evening, found Junker, Lefilliâtre and Anaïs Bertrand (the last properly designated as ‘bas-dessus’, a kind of low soprano) in perfect accord.

A much-reduced audience made its way upstairs to the organ space for a performance of the Leçons de ténèbres by Michel Lambert (1610-1696). Again, each Leçon was garlanded by other pieces, in this case responses and pieces by the Belgian composer Nicolas Hotman, who spent most of his life in France. The present forces (the incredible baritone Marc Mauillon, the viola da gambist Myriam Rignol, theorbist Thibaut Roussel and keyboardist Marouan Mankar-Bennis) have recorded the Lambert for Harmonia Mundi, so are no strangers to the piece. Lambert’s long lines, which seem to prolong syllables forever, are even more plangent that Couperin’s, the interior music more of the shadows. Mauillon’s breath control is phenomenal; this was a miraculous experience for the privileged few who made up the audience. Of the solo/duet instrumental pieces it was the sheer beauty of Thibault Roussel’s theorbo solo (a Hotman Courante) that really shines in the memory; the sheer command the players have of their instruments in this repertoire is staggering.

The decision to end with the Tombeau de Monsieur de Blancrocher by Louis Couperin, played on the organ, was the perfect conclusion, with Mauillon walking off into the dark depths of the chapel. A phenomenal experience and rare treat.

Colin Clarke

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