Couperin: Lecons de tenebres; Magnificat

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COMPOSERS: Couperin
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Couperin
WORKS: Lecons de tenebres; Magnificat
PERFORMER: Theatre of Early Music
CATALOGUE NO: CD 1346
Only three of Couperin’s claimed nine Leçons survive. They are exquisite works, a rare blend of cool plainchant, French decoration and Italian passion. The first two are for a single voice, the third for duet. Although written for female voices, Couperin authorised performance by any other voices, with suitable transposition of the continuo.

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Countertenors Robin Blaze and Daniel Taylor have matching tone-colours, though both manipulate them subtly. Each verse of the Lamentations text opens with a melismatic setting of the appropriate Hebrew letter. Blaze begins Leçon 2 with a hauntingly white sound while, in the third, the voices create a wonderful stillness, piling dissonance upon dissonance. They work up considerable passion to depict fierce anger and the rising anguish of ‘surgere’, all the more effective for the clean, crisp recorded sound.

The earlier Magnificat for a pair of countertenors is animated, with the two voices almost indistinguishably matched. In the Leçons, tempos are consistently much slower than I’ve met before. The charmingly ‘chiffy’ organ helps to drive the rhythm onward and the ‘lamentation’ is all the more effective, if the Italianate musical wordpainting is less vivid. By comparison, James Bowman and Michael Chance (Hyperion) flex the pace around a more explicit pulse and create a greater sense of drama.

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If you like ashes with your sackcloth, you’ll find this protracted remorse from the Theatre of Early Music deeply moving. George Pratt