Couperin • Marais
Written for the Holy Week service of Tenebrae and setting verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, François Couperin’s three Leçons de Ténebrès are perhaps the most beloved of French Baroque sacred works; their seraphic vocal lines soar and float like incense, creating yearning suspensions and poignant dissonances over a hypnotic basso continuo.
Carolyn Sampson negotiates the vocal melismas of the first Leçon with voluptuous grace, while mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland gives a hauntingly plangent account of the second. The two singers complement each other beautifully in the final setting, Kielland’s reedy voice, with its somewhat androgynous quality, throwing Sampson’s crystalline soprano into high relief and adding a slight edginess that prevents the performances from becoming too saccharine.
Continuo players Lynda Sayce (theorbo), Susanne Heinrich (bass viol) and Robert King (chamber organ) offer controlled, discrete accompaniment, and the low French Baroque pitch gives a distinctive timbre and resonance.
Of the numerous fine recordings of these works, Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson’s remains a classic, with its stark purity of sound, while Sophie Daneman and Patricia Petibon with Les Arts Florissants are seductively stylish.
In addition to the Tenebrae lessons, the new Vivat disc also includes Couperin’s motet for Easter Sunday, and his radiant setting of the Magnificat, which is strikingly offset with brooding viol music by Marais and Sainte-Colombe, played with apt gravitas and intensity.