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Fanfare Magazine: 13:2 (11-12 / 1989)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: J. F. Weber


CHARPENTIER Te Deum, H. 146. Missa Assumpta est Maria, H.11. Litanies de la Vierge, H.83. • William Christie, director; Les Arts Florissants. • HARMONIA MUNDI FRANCE HMC 901298 [DDD]; 74:47. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

CHARPENTIER Canticum ad Beatam Virginem Mariam. • Jordí Savall, director; La Concert des Nations. • ASTRÉE E 8713 [DDD]; 74:30. Produced by Michel Bernstein. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)

Canticum in honorem Beatae Virginis Mariae, H.400. Symphonie devant Regina, H.509. Pour la conception de la Vierge, H.313. Nativité de la Vierge, H.309. Prélude pour Salve Regina, H.23a. Salve Regina, H.23. Pour la fête de l'Épiphanie, H.395. Prélude pour le Magnificat, H.533. Magnificat, H.80. Stabat Mater, H. 15. Litanies de la Vierge, H.83.



These two discs arriving in the same mail from the same distributor have much more in common than the composer and the recording venue (Notre Dame du Travail in Paris, previously unknown to me). Last November the first program of the new Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles devoted a very full weekend to the "Charpentier days." Apart from abandoning the French avoidance of the term "Baroque" for the reign of the Sun-King, this celebration marked a new emphasis on a musical era that has won proper esteem only in the last three decades. The Saturday and Sunday evenings saw these two ensembles performing their programs at virtually the same hour on both nights, one in the church of Notre Dame, the other in the royal chapel of the palace, and they are reproduced on these very generous discs, one recorded just before, the other a few months later. One piece not previously recorded (the Litany) appears on both programs.

For the rest, William Christie offers two great works already long available on records. This is the seventh version of the most famous of the composer's choral works and the third version of the great Mass of his last years. Far from being superfluous, Christie offers the finest performance yet of the Te Deum. The earlier versions were landmarks of their time: Louis Martini's first recording for Erato, his stereo remake for the same label, three more versions that came out in quick succession a decade ago (Corboz, Ledger, Malgoire), and the more recent Louis Devos (only the last is on CD, but never submitted for review). There isn't a bad recording in the lot, allowing for the interpretive insights and engineering techniques available when they were made. Rhythmic vitality is present in each; early instruments are used in the two most recent performances, with Ledger and Malgoire both using English choir boys on top. But Christie is the first to employ period pronunciation, something he has tried before along with several other early-music specialists, and his tempos are spectacular.

I was slow to accept the need to research the Latin pronunciation presumed to have been used in a given time and place for each work to be prepared for performance, and it still seems a rather big chore, but this time I hear the salutary results. As for tempo, Christie brings the work to a rousing conclusion such as no previous version has done, yet there is no sense of being rushed. The soloists (no big names here except for those known from Christie's ensemble), the chorus, and the instrumentalists all bring a lightness of execution to their performance that allows Christie to celebrate the victory of Steinkerque without seeming to mourn those who fell. The sound is splendidly forward, allowing the deft performances to be heard with great transparency. By contrast. Martini's stereo version (wonderful when it was new) is thick and seemingly muffled by a blanket, and even the newer competitors are less clear.

The Mass is similar in every respect, but the competition is thinner. Only Louis Martini (Pathé and Vox, mono) and the curiously anonymous Erato recording of a decade back (STU 71281 and MHS 4632, Fanfare 6:5) exist, and the latter has been deleted in France for several years (nor has it appeared on CD), yet as a replacement for the old Martini it was more than serviceable at the time. Now, however, with Christie's vital tempos and period pronunciation, we have a truly spectacular performance of one of the composer's last and finest works, written about 1699 for the Sainte Chapelle. It's also the first complete performance, for both of the others omitted the concluding Domine salvum fac, the usual invocation for the monarch in French Masses.

Christie's third piece is duplicated on the other disc, a program assembling a group of motets around the theme of the life of the Blessed Virgin. This is virtually a collection of first recordings, for only the Salve Regina (on an obscure Gregorian Institute issue of 1962 by the Peloquin Chorale) and the Stabat Mater (on more recent collections from Unisono and Ricercar, 8:1 and 12:5) have ever been recorded before. This piece is described in the Astrée notes as the most highly developed of nine settings of this text by Charpentier. Charpentier might have been expected to appreciate the nature of a litany a little better than Leopold or W. A. Mozart, but like them he utterly fails to capture the responsive nature of this form of prayer. It would be hard to imagine a more effective polyphonic setting than assigning the invocations to soloists and the response (miserere nobis or ora pro nobis) to the ensemble, but like later composers Charpentier simply uses the text as a vehicle to be put to music.

There's no mistaking one performance of the Litany for the other. Besides eschewing Christie's interest in time/place-specific pronunciation ("giving priority to the universal elements of the Latin language," as the notes explain, and in any case characterizing the other approach as "hypothetical," which it is), Jordi Savall finds more contrast in the piece than Christie's reserved approach, and he brings out the "humble, passionate, joyful and finally imploring" aspects of the music cited in the notes.

Not to focus on Savall merely as alternative to Christie, his disc for the most part is a first hearing of some interesting smaller pieces among the large number that the composer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The Litany being his longest selection, the opening Canticum and the penultimate Stabat Mater are the next most elaborate. This really should be called the first recording of the complete Stabat Mater, for the sequence is twenty verses long, the composer setting only the first two, one for solo, the other for unison chorus. The two previous recordings gave us four verses, just enough to illustrate the intended repetition, but here we have the music repeated throughout all twenty verses. Unlike the earlier versions, which used only women's voices (it was composed for the nuns of Port Royal), Savall intrudes into this austere music an element of contrast by giving the even verses to a solo baritone, a welcome change to my ears.

The opening canticle is a setting of a remarkable if unfamiliar Latin text (authorship unknown), extravagantly praising the glory of the Blessed Virgin in elevated language of great beauty. This Magnificat is also a fine work, quite on a level with other settings previously recorded. To correct slightly the rundown earlier given in 9:2 (p. 144), six Magnificats by this composer have now been recorded: H.73 is on CBS 76891 and HM 1082/HMC 90066, the great H.74 is coupled with the Te Deum several times, H.75 is on Everest 3164, H.79 is on Erato NUM 75100/ECD 88027, H.80 is now recorded here, and finally H.81 is on Nonesuch H-71040 and Ricercar RIC 052034.

The Salve Regina and the remaining smaller works round out a very fine addition to the Charpentier shelf. The performers of this international group are partly the same as Savall has used before, most certainly including his wife, Montserrat Figueras, and his baritone soloist, Josep Cabré. All are more than worthy. The engineering is suitably pleasing, each piece is tracked, and the notes touch on each piece, with texts and translations.

Christie's disc has notes by the estimable H. Wiley Hitchcock, texts with translations, and thirty tracks providing detailed access. There's also an interesting lead-in to the Te Deum, a march for timpani by Philidor the Younger. This superb disc must be placed in the first rank of Charpentier releases, and Savall is not to be overlooked for a rarer group of works. What days those must have been at Versailles last year, no?


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