Barely a month now passes without a new issue from Hyperion’s current go-to baroque specialists Arcangelo. It is difficult to conceive of a similar group with a fuller recording schedule. With the pressure to produce the goods on such a regular basis, an occasional dip in quality could easily be forgiven. But there is absolutely no sign of that on this outstanding disc of sacred music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. It epitomises the qualities of this flexible group and their indefatigable director Jonathan Cohen: interesting and under-appreciated repertoire, wonderfully elegant, stylishly executed playing, and adroitly chosen soloists. Some months ago Hyperion released their excellent account of another set of Leçons de ténèbres by François Couperin. With the new issue we go back roughly a generation. Charpentier studied with Giacomo Carissimi in his twenties, so it is perhaps understandable that these Leçons project the Italian influence more tangibly, as do the other pieces in this delightfully planned programme.
We start with the elegantly structured Litanies de la vierge composed on Charpentier’s return from Rome for his devout patroness, Mademoiselle de Guise. This deeply-felt work is a model of balance and symmetry, scored as it is for three female and three male voices with two treble instruments and continuo. Happily, this features Thomas Dunford’s discreet yet atmospheric lute, but the chief glories of this reading are the beautifully matched combinations of solo and tutti voices. Charpentier’s ornate counterpoint is superbly realised—a tribute both to the Hyperion engineers and to the acute listening skills of the vocalists. An attractive feature of this account of the Litanies is the interplay between complementary (and competing?) male and female vocal trios. The three females in particular (sopranos Anna Dennis and Zoë Brookshaw and mezzo Anna Harvey) truly shine.
The male trio get their own moments in the spotlight in the earlier Magnificat à 3. Similarly composed soon after Charpentier’s Italian sojourn, unsurprisingly it demonstrates the creative fruits of his trip both in the instrumental and vocal writing. Adrian Powney’s note informs us that this composer wrote ten versions of the Magnificat and that H73 is probably the most unusual. It is certainly the most Italian-sounding, with the repeated descending four-note ostinato in the bass. Here Dunford’s lute is especially prominent, providing an ever-varying colouristic and dynamic palette. Arcangelo’s accompaniment as a whole (enlivened by the presence of a pair of recorders) provides an elaborate sonic tapestry against which the singers (tenors Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker and the ripe bass Ashley Riches) can project their increasingly intricate vocal stylings.
A purely orchestral interlude follows in the elegant form of the Ouverture pour le sacre d'un évêque, which according to the note is likely to have been a fuller arrangement of an earlier string work, which Charpentier seems to have fleshed out for the inauguration ceremony of a new Archbishop of Paris. Recorders have again been added to the four strings and continuo. The overture consists of two complementary sections, respectively in duple and triple time; Jonathan Cohen leads a vivacious account which gains in detail in the faithful St-Jude-on-the-Hill acoustic.
Tenebrae services were a major part of the Passiontide liturgy in France for a century from about 1630. Following on from Arcangelo’s lovely account of Couperin Les grands leçons, they here give us three of Charpentier’s fifty-plus(!) settings. The first and third feature the loamy voice of the baritone Stéphane Degout (who also appeared on the Couperin disc), while lyric tenor Samuel Boden returns for the second. There is an incongruence in scoring and to some extent in style between the three. This leaves the keen listener in little doubt that they are not a coherent set—the ‘First’ , ‘Second’, ‘Third’ labels applied to each in Hyperion’s otherwise admirable booklet might suggest otherwise. Degout proves sensitive to the plaintive nature of the texts of the first and third Leçons, exuding a convincing sense of resignation and world-weariness. The recorders add an appropriately doleful quality to the beautifully turned accompaniment of the first. (In the third, more extended work they are replaced by flutes.) But it is the more austerely scored second piece which really impresses. The less-is-more accompaniment here (continuo only) perhaps enables the listener to direct closer attention to the bleak text and its delivery; here Boden’s poised contribution seems effortlessly airy and fluent. The Italian influence is never far from the surface in any of these glorious settings.
The readers not especially sympathetic to Charpentier’s style might baulk at the prospect of facing these three Leçons de ténèbres in a single sitting. After all, they add up to three-quarters of an hour of what amounts to slow, unremittingly mournful music. I have to say I barely noticed the time, such is the ardour of the singing and the commitment of the playing. And perhaps it is these qualities which render any recording by Arcangelo to be something of an event. While I am not particularly an adherent of this repertoire, I would argue these sensitively played and truthfully engineered performances demand to be heard. Indeed I found the whole disc both spiritually fulfilling and artistically rewarding.