Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres from Versailles

A truly superb concert, with some unforgettable singing

Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres from Versailles
The Royal Chapel at Versailles, photo © J.-M. Manaï

F. Couperin Leçons de Ténèbres. Ana Vieira Leite, Adèle Carlier (sopranos); Orchestre de l’Opéra-Royal / Gaétan Jarry. Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 5.4.2023

Michel Richard Delalande (1657-1726) Cantique Quatrième: Sur le Bonheur des Justes et le Malheur des Répouvés

François Couperin (1668-1723)  Leçon de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saint. Motet pour le Jour de Pâques: Victoria Christo Resurgenti!

Easter week at Versailles is always a special event. 2019 brought an unforgettable Bach St Matthew Passion from Jordi Savall, Vincent Dumestre’s fascinating Pergolesi Stabat Mater, and a dual concert review of two sets of Leçons de Ténèbres, one by François Couperin and the other by Michel Lambert (this latter the first composer in France to compose a cycle, in 1662; swiftly followed by Charpentier and Delalande).

The traditional snuffing of the candles was again part of the experience (no candle self-snuffing this time, to the best of my knowledge). Delalande’s Cantique begins with solo soprano, morphing quickly into two. The voices of Ana Vieira Liete and Adèle Carlier blended perfectly in the initial ‘Heureux, 1ui de la sagesse’ (Liete’s is a little darker, perhaps a touch more operatic in nature, although as we heard in the Couperin Leçons, she can lighten it beautifully, too). The piece is fascinating, not least for the expression it packs within a relatively small ensemble, including Gaetan Jarry on chamber organ. Perhaps the finest moment was in the fifth movement, ‘De nos attentats injustes,’ the chamber organ glistening in its higher register, occupying the same space as the voices.

Let’s stay with Versailles for a recorded version of Delalande’s piece: Sophie Junker and Florie Valiquette, sopranos (something of a dream team there!), with the Orchestra of the Royal Chapel and Stéphane Fuget;

The three Leçons de Ténèbre of François Couperin constitute an undeniable masterpiece. The purity of voices we heard in the Delalande was perfect for the Couperin, long melismatic passages like the pulling of a silken thread. The dark beauty of the text is reflected beautifully in the music. Jarry traced the contour of the music to perfection, while choosing his continuo instrument carefully (a harpsichord was ‘stacked’ on top of a chamber organ, to give the impression of a double keyboard). Moments such as the lightening on the arrival at the word ‘Requiem’ were absolutely cherishable; as was, in that instance, the sudden darkening thereafter. The opening of the third lesson, both voices beautifully melismatic around the letter ‘Ioth,’ was a moment of purest beauty; a passage saturated in suspensions, later in the third lesson, by the two sopranos was similarly a highlight.

To hear it in its full version on this site (with a couple of delicious extras by Machy and Saint Colombe), we’ll head over to a performance by a group that is friends with Versailles (having just performed Purcell’s Dido there with Helen Charlston recently), Les Arts Florissants and William Christie:

There can hardly be a greater contrast than the joy that infuses Couperin’s Motet pour le Jour de Pâques (Motet for Easter Day), ‘Victoria Christo resugenti!’. The contrasting middle section (‘Sic Jesu pastor’) was gloriously intenal, but perhaps it was the purest beauty of ‘O Jusu salus’ and the joyous gait of the final minutes that truly elevated the spirits.

For our example of this Couperin motet here on Classical Explorer, more friends of Versailles: Christophe Rousset, with a stellar line-up of Sandrine Piau and Véronique Gens (the last of whom, by coincidence, we met in Poulenc just yesterday).

A truly superb concert, then, with some unforgettable singing from Leite and Carlier. It was short with no interval (around 75minutes), but trenendously impactful on a deep spiritual level.

The Amazon link below is to the Château de Versailles Spectacles disc of the Leçons.