Based on a program presented at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2011, this recording, made in a German radio studio in 2013, offers a pair of little-known short operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. One of the two, La descente d'Orphee aux enfers (not to be confused with a similarly titled cantata), either was left unfinished or has been partially lost; it is missing a finale and resolution to the plot.
It would not, perhaps, be too much of a stretch to think of Marc-Antoine Charpentier as a sort of late 17th century Poulenc. Poulenc is known for two distinct artistic faces, one a comedian of the zaniest sort, and the other capable of expressing the most profound emotional depth. Charpentier's work lay in almost complete obscurity for nearly two centuries when in the late 20 century it began being brought to light, revealing one of the most fertile and inventive musical minds of the Baroque. He has been known almost exclusively for his religious music, and particularly for his gift for expressing the darkest grief.
harpentier’s Médée is one of the glories of the Baroque. Medea’s betrayal by Jason, her comprehensive revenge and the plight of those caught up in this epic tragedy prompted Charpentier to compose music of devastating power. Transcending the constraints of the Lullian tragédie lyrique, he produced characterisations of astonishing complexity and invested vast stretches of music with a dramatic pace and a harmonic richness rivalled among contemporaries only by Purcell. The electrifying exchanges of the third act, mingling pathos with extreme violence, alone put Charpentier on the same imaginative level as Rameau and Berlioz. The machinations of the fourth act and the dénouement in the fifth maintain the same captivating impetus.
This is an attractive programme of comparatively rare vocal repertoire. Airs de cour by Charpentier (including verses from Corneille’s Le Cid) and Lambert are interpersed with instrumental movements from Couperin’s Les Nations. Cyril Auvity is an experienced advocate of the haute-contre repertoire and draws on all that experience to engage fully with the texts of these miniature dramas. His tone in the higher register can verge on the harsh, though this is a rare event.
The instrumental works of Marc-Antoine Charpentier are familiar to very few people. A large number of them were composed for use in churches, the most famous of these being the Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues that has already been recorded by Jean Tubéry and La Fenice for Ricercar (RIC 245). Charpentier composed the Sonate à huit around 1685, at a time when various private musical societies were exploring the Italian sonata style. Charpentier discovered this style at the same time as François Couperin, who also set about composing sonatas in the Italian style. Charpentier’s Sonate à huit blends the Italian style with the French suite of dances and as such is one of the masterpieces of instrumental music of the French baroque. The symphonies Pour un Reposoir were intended to accompany an outdoor procession, an organ naturally not being available. The greater part of the CD, however, is taken up by the Noëls pour les Instruments which Charpentier set for instrumental ensemble and organ. We have also recorded the original versions of the above-mentioned Christmas carols, complete with their many verses as they appeared in French collections published at the beginning of the 18th century. This recording of Christmas music can be enjoyed throughout the year!
A treasure map is needed to find one’s way through this release. The CDs and DVD, exquisitely encased in a beautiful book – full of facsimiles, photographs and essays as well as vocal texts in innumerable translations – contain performances of some of the most beautifully crafted, deeply spiritual music Charpentier ever wrote. Catherine Cessac, the foremost French authority on Charpentier, writes eloquently on the music and Savall on the impetus for the collection. The repertoire, inspired by the story of the Virgin Mary, is drawn from all periods of Charpentier’s life and reflects the different private and public circumstances of his employment, the musical resources available to him and occasions for which he composed. In several cases more than one performance, each with different personnel, has been included, hence the need for a map.