I was particularly pleased to get this CD because I had just sung in a presentation of Charpentier's 'Messe de Minuit pour NoŽl' this past Christmas season and had been really knocked sideways by the piece. I'd never heard it before but it was love at first run-through, largely because it is so unpretentious, so joyous, so bewitching that it would take a heart of stone to dislike it.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) probably wrote the Messe for Christmas 1694 - three hundred years ago! - using several French carols as its basis. Most of those carols are not well-known to us (although the first one used, 'Joseph est bien marié') is pretty familiar), but I can only imagine that for parishioners of the time the parade of beloved tunes made the mass a joy to hear. And it is possibly with that in mind that in this recording the Canadian choral group Aradia inserted into the 'Christe eleison' a substitution that would particularly have appealed to their Canadian audiences. What they did was take Charpentier's treatment of the French carol 'Une jeune pucelle' ('A Young Virgin') and replace the usual French words with a text from the Huron language ('Estennialon de tsonwe'), a version known in Canada simply as 'The Huron Carol.' What a delightful touch! It does not alter Charpentier's music, but it gives a regional cast to the performance that I found puzzling at first (particularly since Keith Anderson's booklet notes make absolutely no mention of the substitution) but then utterly charming. I gather there is a tradition of doing this sort of thing in this populist mass. The music of the mass itself is quintessentially French baroque: transparency, lots of dotted rhythms, homophonic textures mingling with limpid counterpoint and, most of all, a lack of stolidity so common to German baroque sacred music of the time. I can tell you that when the choir I belong to was first preparing it we broke down into giggles more than once. It's that light-hearted. I do not know any other recordings of the work and thus can make no comparisons; I see that it has been recorded by Les Arts Florissants and others. I will only say that I found this performance entirely satisfying.
Also included on the disc are the 'Te Deum' which is filled with ceremonial flourishes from trumpets and drums, and one of Charpentier's settings of the 'Dixit Dominus,' listed as H. 204. (The H. denotes the listing of Charpentier's works by the distinguished American musicologist, H. Wiley Hitchcock.) The performances are beguiling.
Aradia, a group of singers and period instrumentalists based in Toronto, specializes in early music and is under the expert direction of Kevin Mallon.