This is Charpentier as you may not be used to hearing him. The priorities of this CD, which is a collection of vocal pieces from various of Charpentier's works, seem well-reflected in the first sentence of principal singer, Gérard Lesne's, note: "The subtle affinities between composer and performer come into the category of the intimate, the secret, the impalpable. And this applies to the relationship between the great and yet terribly fragile composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier… and myself, an all too modest interpreter who has been shamelessly appropriating this disconcerting, capricious œvre for so many years now."
So this is very much Lesne's show. Perhaps such an emphasis on performer is only an analog of Charpentier's own probably larger than life presence in performances of his works… we know which roles the composer took, and – given the nature of those roles – how his style and charisma must have seemed to those who listened to his music. Here we are being asked implicitly to trust in the intimacy of that relationship between composer and interpreter – and to invest a fair amount in the personality and style of Lesne himself.
Born in 1956, Gérard Lesne studied musicology at the Sorbonne and has had a varied career. In 1979 he was introduced to René Clemencic, who proved a big influence; in 1985 he founded the French and Italian Baroque specialist ensemble, Il Seminario Musicale, which he directs. Lesne describes his own voice as "contralto' and obviously thrives as much on revealing neglected works (and composers: his discography includes music by Bernier, Borlet, Clérambault, Cordier, Courbois, De Brossard, du Buisson, Machado and Stuck) as well as more mainstream composers. His is a sinuous and rich voice, neither thin nor obtrusive, lacking the overbearing penetration that could strip it of expressiveness; and somewhat forward and deliberate in articulation. It's certainly been recorded very forward here, with breathing and at times rather "showy" consonants all audible. This makes for immediacy and presence; though if you relish a more impersonal Baroque style with a little less "twist', you may feel a trifle uncomfortable.
Reassuringly, Lesne also explains how important the relationship between text and music is (in such French Baroque music) and how decisions of interpretation and pronunciation were informed by his close reading of Charpentier's chosen texts. Lesne's senses of humor, of urgency, pathos and regret etc. are all very much to the fore as the music on this generous selection progresses. Pleasingly, there is a wide span of such emotions: this is no dour, dark dwelling on the downbeat or depressing; though the music is no less the intense for that. In that respect, it is still Charpentier. Highly concentrated, wrought to the last semiquaver and minor third.
There are three groups of works here: the striking Epitaphium Carpentarij, the chamber cantata Orphée Descendant Aux Enfers and a selection of songs, Tristes Déserts of which gives the disk its name.
Epitaphium Carpentarij is a rarity: Charpentier himself returns to earth after his (own) death and holds a dialog with his two friends, Ignatius and Marcellus. A kind of parody on the contemporary tombeau, it blends deep seriousness with blithe lightheartedness and is situated – for all its heavenly sensibilities – firmly in late seventeenth century metropolitan France, although references to Charpentier's predecessor at the Sainte-Chapelle, François Chaperon, and to Charpentier's idol, Carissimi, look more to the musical world than the personal. Lesne and his forces successfully invite close listening.
Orphée Descendant Aux Enfers has as one of its defining characteristics the blend of French oratory and Italian almost sensual harmonies. The richness and particularity of this texture are re-inforced by the striking combination of accompanying instruments for Orpheus (a "part" taken by Charpentier himself): two violins, recorder, flute and bass viol. The Orpheus myth was by now well established in French and Italian music; although Charpentier – presumably after his time in Italy – was more attracted to the lugubrious aspects of the story than were others of the same generation in France. Again, this is fetching music – beautifully proportioned and with something new revealed at each listening.
It's perhaps in the songs that one sees some of the most striking and happy liaisons between text and words. This is hardly surprising since Charpentier collaborated with some of the greatest writers of his day… Molière, La Fontaine, Corneille: here Les Stances Du Cid. These songs, too, mix humor and parody – satire almost – with tenderness, acute observation and an un-selfconscious reflection on love, desire, disease and envy etc. They're beautifully sung, careful and with an immediacy that usually comes when an audience is present. An obvious gift of performer Lesne. Though he doesn't overdo some of the bawdy or stricken despair that Charpentier was so expert at conjuring up. These are pieces that also demonstrate the versatility and restraint of the other players and singers. Gently persuasive.
Nevertheless, this is very much a CD inviting our attention to virtuosity, the elevation of the solo artist – performer and composer… the latter writing roles and conceiving of situations in which he could stamp his personality in otherwise impossible ways; the former eagerly living up to this individuality with near abandon. Only if performers of our days have really understood the bounds as well as the spirit in which the composer chose to work this way and have managed to enter into this spirit with just the right balance of conservation and re-interpretation of its essence can their almost idiosyncratic approach be justified, and can it really work – particularly if you're unfamiliar with the music. Anything else verges on the gauche and self-conscious.
There can be little doubt that Lesne (for it is still very much about his pace and priorities) has the idiom of the music well in hand. His intonation for the "Puisque je meurs' tag in Ruisseau Qui Nourrit Dans Ce Bois, for example, seems just right. The declamatory style of the Orphée has a superb balance of pressure with pathos. And the whimsy of the Epitaphium really "sells' the piece. Where one might have doubts is in the determined intensity with which the music as a whole is performed. Those elements which surely betoken a nod and a wink on Charpentier's part might have been better conveyed by at times a more relaxed conception. Nevertheless this CD makes a valuable contribution to Charpentier's discography, is a delight to listen to, well-recorded and an all round success.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey