Couperin Leçons de ténèbres Géns Piau Balssa RoussetFrançois Couperin

Leçons de ténèbres

Sandrine Piau, soprano; Véronique Gens, soprano

Les Talens Lyriques

Christophe Rousset, organ; Emmanuel Balssa, bass viol

Decca, 2000

Only in Italy and France composers wrote considerable works on the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. In France, in particular, the interest was aroused in the middle of the 16th century by the edition of Lamentations of Le Roy & Ballard (1557) and culminated with the leçons de ténèbres of Michel Lambert (1689) and Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c1670–95), developing a genre that preserved its individuality between the French motet and the Italian Lamentations.

The present recording features a performance of those that are the most celebrated Leçons de ténébres and one of the finest vocal works of all time, the Leçons written by François Couperin for Holy Wednesday, together with two of his motets (Laetentur coeli and Victoria!) and his Magnificat. It is known of course that, although only three Leçons survive, Couperin wrote a complete set of nine, but unfortunately no publication or manuscript of the other six have ever been found. They were probably composed around 1714 and printed between the publication of Couperin’s first and second harpsichord books (1713-1717). The first two Leçons are for soprano solo and the third is a duet for two sopranos. They are closer to the model of Charpentier and of his teacher Carissimi rather than to Lully’s stately motets, a kind of composition that Couperin did not like or so it seems taking into consideration the surviving material. This approach reflects the change of orientation of the Royal Court that at the end of the 17th century tended to favour simpler and more sober works to the magniloquence of Lully and Delalande.

In this recording, the first Leçon is performed by Sandrine Piau, the second to Véronique Gens and the third, together with the three other compositions, to both sopranos, while Christophe Rousset and Emmanuel Balssa play the organ and the bass viol respectively.

From the very first note, it is clear that these Leçons de ténèbres are performed in a highly professional level, but also in a relaxed and, in a certain sense, serene fashion so that, if it happens to hear them without knowing or without paying much attention to the text, it will be easier to think of them as meditative compositions for the Holy Week and not as the narration of fatal events in Jerusalem (Jeremiah’s text has been written as a reaction to Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of the city). This was probably also Couperin’s intent, but in this case the main reason for this impression is the discreet, plain continuo of Christophe Rousset and Emmanuel Balssa that remains always behind the scenes to give prominence to the two voices of Piau and Gens.

Piau and Gens are the real strength and reason of interest of this recording, but I am not sure if it was intentional from the beginning, although the remote and rarefied sound of the organ makes me inclined to think so. Anyway, there are many contact points between the two sopranos’ voices and interpretations and for this reason the third Leçon, scored for two sopranos, reveals moments of incredible beauty and, when the two singers sing together, it seems to ascend to heaven. The same happens in the two motets and in the Magnificat, but in Victoria!, a motet composed for Easter, the effect is that of rejoicing and jubilation – something that is a little more predictable, if you want.

Apart from this, some differences are still recognizable between Piau and Gens and, if on the one hand the first Leçon benefits of Piau’s silvery timbre and of her soaring voice that makes almost moving the melismas and gives a touch of sadness to the entire work, the second Leçon takes advantage of Gens’s warmer but equally ethereal instrument – a feature, this last, that renews the idea of continuity between the two Leçons.

There is some detachment in these Leçons, motets and Magnificat due to the overall reading of the works rather than to the performance of the two sopranos, but this does not exclude that the music is very well performed and extremely enjoyable.