Couperin: Messe pour les couvents

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COMPOSERS: Couperin
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Messe pour les couvents
PERFORMER: Marie-Claire Alain (organ); Compagnie Musicale Catalane/Josep Cabré
CATALOGUE NO: 3984-25507-2
François Couperin’s two organ Masses – one for parish use on solemn feast days, the other for religious orders of monks or nuns (“convent” doesn’t necessarily mean the latter) – are classics, though chances to hear them complete are limited. Couperin wrote them according to the French custom of celebrating High Mass, chant alternating with brief organ pieces of varying types. Here the chants were composed by Couperin’s predecessor, Henri Du Mont, and are sung by a group of five, slightly flowery-voiced sopranos. I got used to them, and Du Mont’s setting complements Couperin’s music perfectly. Occasionally, you hear a celebrant – male, of course, and uncredited.

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The recording was made in Poitiers Cathedral, where the organ dates from a hundred years after Couperin’s Mass. The tuning, to unequal temperament, gives the rich harmonies a shimmer, and the recording has great presence, and an atmospheric, reverberant depth. Marie-Claire Alain, the doyenne of French organists, plays with authoritative ease, never pushing the music too hard, nor labouring its often florid details.

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With slightly skimpy programme notes (though information about the organ and registration details are given) this issue is not very generous at full price, but it still qualifies as a benchmark. Bargain hunters, however, might consider a more distant, though beautiful, recording of both the monastic and parish Masses, with men singing plainchant, on the historic organ of the Cathedral in Saint-Bertrand de Comminges on a 2-disc set on Virgin Veritas, and if you like immediacy and a brisk pace, the Messe pour les couvents has been recorded on another historic organ near Metz on Arte Nova Classics at bargain-price. Adrian Jack