‘Christmas chez Charpentier’ with Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Charpentier: Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset (director), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.12.2019. (CS)

Charpentier – Litanies de la vierge H84, Pour la vierge (‘Felix namque es’) H360, Antiennes O de l’Avent H36-43, Noëls sur les instruments H534 (‘Joseph est bien marié’, ‘Or nous dites Marie’, ‘Où s’en vont ces gais bergers?’), Antiphona in honorem beatae virginis a redemptione captivorum (‘Beata es Maria’) H25, In circumcisione Domini: Dialogus inter angelum et pastores (‘Xenia pastores’) H406, Noëls pour les instruments H531 (‘O créateur’, ‘Laissez paîtres vos bêtes’, ‘Vous qui désirez sans fin’), Magnificat H73.

My festive season seems to be turning into ‘Christmas chez Charpentier’, and very pleasing that is.

After a fine performance by Solomon’s Knot, at St John’s Smith Square, of two of the French composer’s nativity ‘oratorios’, on this occasion at Wigmore Hall it was the turn of Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques to present works which Charpentier composed for that characteristically French combination of trois vois égales – high tenor, tenor, bass – here accompanied by three viols, with Rousset alternating between harpsichord and organ.              

Dignified, tasteful and earnest probably best sums up the prevailing approach of Les Talens Lyriques to the performance of Charpentier’s exquisitely crafted and tenderly expressive music.  The ensemble was tightly knit, the technique was highly polished, and the presentation was grave and calm.  Perhaps at times the ambience was a little trop sérieux; the tuning of the organ and viols was done with exemplary care, and at length; the three male singers sat ramrod straight with sombre expressions during the instrumental diversions.  The music, at least in the first half of the recital, was beautiful but somewhat uniform in mood and manner.

But, if the small ensemble employed did not offer a great deal of opportunity for textural diversity, such contrasts that Charpentier did present were exploited imaginatively.  The voices blended neatly but, when taking the alternating solo phrases, each communicated character: Benoît Arnould’s baritone was a gentle foundation for the two tenor voices, Robert Getchell sailing effortlessly to the higher lying line, Fabien Hyon providing strength and vigour.  The treble viols of Atsushi Sakaï and Marion Martineau both doubled the voices sensitively, sometimes echoing the vocal gestures, and presented independent material that danced around the sung melodies with freshness and lightness.  Isabelle Saint-Yves’ contribution, particularly in the continuo episodes, was highly impressive: all was beautifully phrased, particularly the hemiolas, and the bass viol tone was warm and true.  Rousset was the epitome of calm composure, directing his players with the slightest of nods or glances.

Returning to Paris around 1670, after three years spent studying with Carissimi in Italy, Charpentier found himself unable to obtain a position at either the court of Louis XIV or the Paris Opéra, both of which were under the monopolistic control of Lully.  He needed a wealthy patron and found one in the person of Marie, Duchesse de Guise, who supported a culturally rich household and who, having spent much time living in Florence, was probably inclined to be indulgent of Charpentier’s ventures into Italianate idioms.  Charpentier took up residence in the Guise household until Marie’s death in 1688.  The Duchess was a devout Roman Catholic, especially devoted to Marian veneration: many of the sacred works which we heard here were written for her chapel and for the nearby Church of Mercy, and were likely presented by a small chamber ensemble such as that which Rousset had brought to Wigmore Hall, with Charpentier himself often singing the high tenor part.

Charpentier made nine settings of the Litanies de la Vierge for the Duchess and it was one of these which opened the concert, in solemn, meditative fashion.  But, there are contrasts within the work, moments where the mood lightens, as in the lively ‘Sanctus’ which was further lifted by Hyon’s vibrant tone and more pressing delivery.  Throughout, the Latin text was revered – as is right: for the French, the Word reigned – but diversity of tempi and colour were not sacrificed on the altar of enunciation.  The three voices came together in warm union as the viols’ forward movement coloured the praise, ‘Regina Angelorum, regina Partriarcharum’ (Queen of angels, Queen of patriarchs).  Arnould and Hyon shaped the sequences of the following item, Pour la Vierge, most expressively and the baritone’s closing pleas were deeply sincere.

The so-called ‘O’ Antiphons are a sequence of short settings of Latin verses foretelling of the coming of Christ, to be sung during the last week of Advent.  We heard five of the antiphons, preceded by the motet Salut de la veille des ‘O’ with which, Charpentier’s manuscript indicates, the composer intended the sequence to begin, and in which – the treble viols now silent – Saint-Yves’ lyrical bass line conversed eloquently with the three voices.  The antiphons presented some pleasing contrasts, the homophony of the second, ‘O Adonai et Dux domus Israel’ (O Mighty Lord and Leader of the house of Israel), incorporating some Italianate harmonic twists, the seventh, ‘O Emmanuel Rex et legifer noster’ (O Emmanuel, our King and lawgiver) closing the sequence with muscular strength and presence.

I think that Charpentier indicates that instrumental noëls, based on Christmas carols, should be placed between the antiphons but here we had to wait until the close to hear ‘Joseph est bien marié’, ‘Or nous dites Marie’ and the dance-like ‘Où s’en vont ces gais bergers’, in which the viols sang with surprisingly bright tone and vigour.  The first half ended with the touching implorations of Hyon and Getchell to the Blessed Virgin of the Redemption of Captives, their tenors blending warmly at the close, conveying faith and certainty.

There was a change of ambience after the interval, a more theatrical and Italianate tone being established with the presentation of In circumcisione Domini: Dialogus inter angelum et pastores, one of the 35 histories sacrées known to have been composed by Charpentier.  The form, a sort of ‘mini-opera’, was a favourite of Carissimi, and it was surely during his stay in Rome that Charpentier became familiar with this genre, subsequently importing it to France.  The triple and compound time signatures of In circumcision Domini created stirring momentum as Getchell’s Angel urged the Shepherds to hurry to Bethlehem.  Hyon and Arnould did indeed ‘make haste’ and the immediacy of the unfolding drama made one imagine the intimacy of the private setting within the Guise household where the work was likely first performed.  Getchell shaped the Angel’s melismatic questions and appeals with a light, relaxed touch; the winding lines of the tenors were rich and sweet as they sang of the ‘pure-white doves’ and ‘pears sweeter than honey’ that they would present to the Christ child.  While never overly impetuous, Rousset persuasively guided the drama forwards, towards the Angel’s concluding consolations, sung à 3, which softened tenderly: ‘Utinam pura utinam munda/ Utinam tibi grata’ (may they be pure, may they be virtuous, may they be pleasing to you).

Three more Noëls sur les instruments followed – the peaceful ‘O créateur’, with its beautiful high viol ornamentation; the dancing ‘Laissez paîtres vos bêtes’; the more sombre variations of ‘Vous qui désirez sans fin’, with its telling rhythmic repetitions – a palette cleanser before the concluding Magnificat, which was probably written for the Saint-Chapelle where Charpentier held a prestigious position from 1698 until his death in 1704.  Here, the results of Charpentier’s Italian training blossomed, in the form of characterful solo melodies, robust and decorative viol contributions, and harmonic adventurousness.  The ensemble’s poise and self-possession did not waver but there was an underlying energy which injected an excitement and optimism that had been absent in the first half.  An assured Gloria and Amen brought the Magnificat’s confident assertions to a satisfying close, sealed with a consoling tierce de Picardie cadence.

This was a beautiful performance, balancing scholarship and innate appreciation of the idiom. After a charming encore, Charpentier’s Laudate Dominum H159, Rousset and his players acknowledged the audience’s warm applause with unruffled serenity.

Claire Seymour

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