Something Old / Something New

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Italian Elegance in 17th-Century France

Issue 128

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) boasted two key requirements for a successful musical career in late 17th-century Paris: a well-connected father who could introduce him to potential patrons and two years’ worth of compositional training from the Italian maestro Giacomo Carissimi. He also had plenty of natural talent and ambition. The result was a catalogue of beautifully constructed Baroque works, both sacred and secular, several of which have been featured in recent recordings.

The great majority of Charpentier’s output was sacred, written both for private patrons (in particular, a wealthy duchess, Marie de Lorraine, who employed and housed him for 17 years) as well as the Jesuits, who hired him after the duchess died. Many of his hundreds of surviving works are Masses, the genre best represented on recordings from the past year.

The Messe à quatre choeurs (Mass for Four Choirs) is an early work, believed to date from 1670. Charpentier wrote at least four settings of the Mass that year. In a beautiful performance on Harmonia Mundi, Sébastien Daucé conducts the vocal and period-instrument group Ensemble Correspondances. The programming is clever: The track list follows young Charpentier on his travels from Paris to study and work in several towns in Italy. Between pieces by Charpentier are compositions by other musicians with whom he would have come into contact, such as Francesco Cavalli and Tarquinio Merulo.

The first phrases of the opening Kyrie establish both Charpentier’s highly developed skills, even in his twenties, as well as the power, intensity, and accuracy of the Ensemble Correspondances. The singers, using vocal placement and pitch carefully researched for the place and time, lean into the minor mode harmonies and dissonances Charpentier has crafted to give weight and pathos to this solemn text, “Lord, have mercy.” The Gloria of this Mass opens with a delicate duet between soprano and mezzo soloists, but then expands into a mighty chorus and the text continues. (Later, in Vivaldi’s hands, the Gloria text alone would become its own 12-movement oratorio!)

Harmonia Mundi does not allow its releases on any free streaming services, but you can sample all the tracks here: http://www.harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2656  If you have a Qobuz account, listen to the album in hi-res streaming here: https://play.qobuz.com/album/utabouskl7tva

Another new French recording captures a somewhat later Mass. Charpentier seems to have written the Messe pour Monsieur Mauroy (Mass for Mr. Mauroy) in 1690, and Le Concert Spirituel’s effort under director Hervé Niquet on Chandos attempts to give it a celestial sheen. The composer included not only the Ordinary sections of the Mass (the texts used every time), but also some of the Propers (texts that change with the liturgical calendar), resulting in an hour-long work.

The orchestra’s playing is flawless. In the second section of the Kyrie, the instrumental ensemble, featuring a richly toned recorder solo, moves light-footed through Charpentier’s elegant, courtly measures. Niquet gives a dance-like quality to this section, where the text is “Christ have mercy,” traditionally treated more gently by composers than the “Lord have mercy” section. Unfortunately, one of the two soprano vocalists sounds quite strained.

 

The three male soloists in the Agnus Dei fare somewhat better, but overall the vocal tone is strangely harsh, so consistently that it appears to be a stylistic choice. On the other hand, the singers’ intonation is excellent, as is their phrasing, and it’s interesting to hear Latin pronounced in what is presumably a historically accurate French manner.

 

Deutsche Grammophon offered up more sacred works on its new recording Charpentier: Baroque Splendor by Les Musiciens du Louvre, a chamber ensemble founded in 1982 by Marc Minkowski, who remains its conductor. Along with two Masses, the album includes Charpentier’s Suite pour un reposoire (Suite for a resting place) as well as his Te Deum, H. 146. The Te Deum is a medieval hymn sung at the matins prayer service; it became a favorite text for composers to turn into glorious polyphonic works, especially in Catholic France.

This short duet for bass and alto with continuo and obbligato from the Charpentier’s Te Deum gives a good indication of the work’s elegance, as well as the tasteful, detailed performance by Mindowski’s ensemble.

 

The Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) was written for the Christmas Eve service, probably in 1690. Following long-established Catholic tradition, the Gloria movement opens with unison voices giving the opening line in Gregorian chant. Then the polyphony begins, first a passage sung with gentle wonder, which is quickly contrasted by a tightly articulated, aggressive section, then a series of solo passages. The lengthy text continues in short, varied bursts, each one performed beautifully by the Louvre musicians. In this recording, you can really hear how the French baroque inspired Handel in the following generation.

 

Although the bulk of Charpentier’s output was in the sacred realm, he also received commissions for secular works. The was particularly true when the duchess was his patron. As a wealthy, influential personage, she had sway over the work of artists keen to please her, including the playwright Molière. When he needed incidental music for his comic play Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) in 1673, the duchess pressured the playwright to hire her favorite composer.

In a new self-published recording called Charpentier: Torum esse vitae (She Was Living), L’Orchestre Baroque d’Avignon presents this incidental music, arranged for mixed ensemble and conducted by Lois de Crihlon.

Much of Charpentier’s music for this play was meant to be danced to. Thanks to the tastes of King Louis XIV, the French come to expect ballet in every theatrical work. But other movements are clearly intended just to set the mood. It’s fascinating to hear this humorous, even silly, passage by the same composer who wrote all those lofty Masses. While the playing is excellent and Crihlon is to be admired for taking on this unusual material, the sound quality is muffled – a wasted opportunity to make a really nice recording.

 

One further release from the past year should be mentioned. Charpentier wrote many theatrical pieces such as divertissements and operas (either for patrons’ private homes or the larger public stage). Among the latter is his version of the Orpheus and Euridice myth. This story obsessed composers when opera was first invented around 1600; Charpentier learned well from his teacher, Carissimi, and created a stylish and exciting work.

La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld), released on Alpha Music, features the vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, directed by Lionel Meunier, and the vocal and instrumental ensemble A Nocte Temporis, directed by Reinoud Van Mechelen. It’s a sensitive and skilled performance, always aware of the breathless rhythmic motion (known to musicologists as “over-dotting”) so essential to 17th-century French opera. This short excerpt, sung to Orpheus by three denizens of the Underworld longing to be free, demonstrates the idea:

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