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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.
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