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Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Te Deum and Grand Office des Morts
17 May 2006

CHARPENTIER: Te Deum and Grand Office des Morts

In the modern performance of seventeenth-century French music, the ensemble Les Arts Florissants holds a special place, both for its longevity and the striking stylistic fluency it brings to performances — performances that have come to define our very sense of French Baroque style.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Te Deum and Grand Office des Morts

Les Arts Florissants. William Christie, Director.

Virgin Classics 7 24354 57332 3 [CD]

$14.98  Click to buy

This present recording of liturgical music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier is no exception in this regard, for what impresses most is the naturalness of the performance idiom. The intricacies of French ornamentation, the timbral richness of French Latin, the shapely contours of line, the elegant embodiments of dance all prove second nature to Christie and his ensemble, elevating manner and artifice to true eloquence.

The opening “Te Deum,” one of several by Charpentier, is well-known, at least for its opening Marche en rondeau, a rousing bit of splendor out of which we moderns have constructed a musical icon of Louis XIV’s France. In its diverse aspects—alternately martial, dance-like, and intimate—the “Te Deum” evokes the close unity of church and state, often impressively so. And the variety makes for interesting listening. If the straight-ahead D major gloire is the brightest hue, there are also shimmering dissonant mixtures in luxuriant moments that underscore the richness of Charpentier’s harmonic palette—luxuriant moments to which Christie remains ever sensitive.

The “Grand Office des Morts” brings together a funeral mass, the Requiem sequence (“Dies irae”) and a motet on a purgatorial theme, all of which share proximity in Charpentier’s “Méslanges autographes,” the composer’s extensive collection of compositions in his own hand. There is little to suggest the pieces were composed or performed as a unified work, although the present performance amply demonstrates how effective that can be. Like the Te Deum, this “Grand Office” is also varied, but its prominent hue is often a dark one, as in the quietly controlled tristesse of the opening “Kyrie” or the pronounced languish of the harmonically rich “Agnus Dei.” The most memorable instance of this lamentative darkness is the instrumental prelude and final refrain of the motet. Low strings and hushed vocal dynamics cloak the plea for mercy in sepulchral shadows whose darkness is sublimely affective. Rapture is also close at hand in the chain of suspensions that begin the “Pie Jesu,” reminding of the formidable influence of Italianism in Charpentier’s works.

The recording is of a live concert given in Paris at the Cité de la Musique in 2004. On occasion the balance seems askew, with solo parts disproportionately loud relative to a somewhat distant sounding tutti, surely the result of the challenges of live recording in public venues. A regret, to be sure, but a small one relative to the many pleasures the performance affords.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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