COUPERIN Leçons de Ténèbres (Les Ombres)
Although one of the many fine baroque chamber ensembles to have emerged from the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Les Ombres have a definite French leaning, evident not only in their personnel but in the music they have chosen to record so far, which includes Couperin’s Les nations and Telemann’s ‘Paris’ Quartets. Here they invite two French sopranos to join them for three of the shining jewels of the Baroque, Couperin’s achingly beautiful Leçons de ténèbres for one and two voices and continuo.
Both have voices pleasingly suited to this transparent music: Chantal Santon Jeffery, who sings the First Leçon, has the weightier and more dramatic voice of the two, as befits her operatic experience, while Anne Magouët, a singer with a background in more intimate settings, is lighter and a touch more mellifluous in the Second, also managing to incorporate Couperin’s ornamentation more gracefully into the line. And, anyway, it pays to have a recognisable but not too grating difference between the singers in this music, especially when it comes to the Third Leçon, in which they join together in sublime but characterful duet. Les Ombres give variety to the continuo as well, with harpsichord replacing the more usual organ alongside theorbo and gamba in the First and Third Leçons. These are honest and stylish performances of this wondrous music that successfully balance emotional weight and responsiveness to text with elegance and composure.
The couplings here are unusual, including a short liturgical organ piece and four verses of the psalm Mirabilia testimonia tua, in which the singers are joined by flutes and violins in a strangely disparate sequence that begins in the memorable sound world of intertwining unaccompanied sopranos and elsewhere features delicately high-lying continuo. The solo bass motet Salvum me fac Deus, also with violins and flutes and claimed here as a premiere recording, is for Couperin a surprisingly bold and large scale setting in several strongly characterised sections, and is confidently and lithely sung by Benoît Arnould. A rewarding and well-executed look into the often under-appreciated world of Couperin’s sacred music.