"I am a musician considered good by good musicians and ignorant by ignorant ones." Thus Marc-Antoine Charpentier in his own epitaph. As you take his music, take such a statement – on several levels. A challenge to elevate one style (the Italian, by a Frenchman) over another (that of the ironically Italian-born French champion, Lully). As resentment: Charpentier's genius was barely recognized in his lifetime. Most pertinently, as a consequent and justified self-assertion of how superb a musician Charpentier was.
Here is just over an hour of four splendid Charpentier works for Christmas. Two versions of the Noël (Carol), 'Un flambeau, Janette, Isabelle!' (H.460c); the 'Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judae in nativitatem Domini' (H 420) and the more substantial 'In nativitatem Domini canticum "Usquequo avertis"' (H 416).
Somehow you know this is Christmas music from the first note of the plaintive, understated, 'Un flambeau'. It's actually a bit of a 'cheat', being an arrangement for organ and voices by Kevin Mallon, the Aradia Ensemble's violinist conductor, of what is known (by some, anyway) as 'Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella'.
Both motets are from Charpentier's nearly three dozen Latin oratorios. The Dialogus is the shepherds' story in St. Luke's Gospel and is performed with a nice balance of dignity and energy. The New Testament words are set against more sombre pleas in Psalm XII for God to intervene for humankind… that complexity of Charpentier's again. A minor cavil: the Purcellian chromaticism would have conveyed sobriety amidst joy without the slower tempo at which the instrumental movement, Nuit, is taken. Nevertheless, the delightfully varied piece is beautifully articulated; with the pleasure of repeated listening to the entire performance grows an appreciation of how skillfully Mallon uses pauses.
'In nativitatem Domini canticum' is the most outright gorgeous work on this disc – in the Handelian sense: lush, pointed and highly melodic. The performance is the nearest to the seasonally ecstatic here. Yet it is approached with poise and paced with care. The result is freshness, particularly from the strings, sopranos and altos. The sense of joy in painting the Nativity is compelling, presented with just the right amount of restraint. Charpentier can be morose, which would never do here. Cool concentration at the crucial moments (the starts and climaxes of duets and choruses, for example) sees to that.
The Toronto-based Aradia Ensemble is ten years old this year and was recorded in that city playing on period instruments, including a hurdy-gurdy for the Noëls. Aradia has a wide repertoire with something of an emphasis on dance, as is evident from the Marche in the Dialogus. Some of the least exposed Baroque repertoire can, in the wrong hands, lack drive or variety. Not in this performance.
The acoustic is appropriate to Christmas reflection and adoration, if a little dry – for example in the choruses. There are no competitor recordings of this new combination of these attractive and marvelously atmospheric works. Christie and Les Arts Florissants do have an 'In nativitatem Domini canticum' (Naxos 8.557036); the Aradia Ensemble (whose approach is more contained, less extrovert, than theirs) also has an older and similarly titled CD (Naxos 8.557036) . But this is Naxos: you can pick up this wonderful seasonal appetizer for under $7. Do!
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey