This, the second release on the new Vivat label (the first being I Was Glad), is centred around the three surviving Leçons de Ténèbres of François Couperin. Like the Parry and Stanford release we again have high production values, an informative booklet and the benefit of a new musical perspective.
Personally appointed to the Chapelle Royale by Louis XIV, the Sun King, Couperin brought a new intensity of expression to sacred music, using smaller forces than was the tradition of the time. It seems originally there was a complete set of nine Leçons for Holy Week. These were most likely performed at the abbey at Longchamps, just west of Paris, attended (unlikely as it may seem) by fashionable Parisian society, no doubt suffering withdrawal symptoms brought on by the closure of the opera houses in the period leading up to Easter.
The emphasis of the album is one of reflection and lamentation: as well as the Leçons we have an Easter motet, a magnificat, and a series of pieces for bass viol played by Susanne Heinrich.
The first two Leçons are solo, gradually building in intensity and reaching a culmination in the third, a duet, where the voices of Carolyn Sampson and Marianne Beate Kielland interweave in a powerfully intense evocation of Jeremiah's rebuke to the people of Jerusalem. The continuo is subtle and understated, but underpins the unfolding drama - with its exquisite suspensions and dissonances - beautifully. The atmosphere leading up to Tenebrae, with the candles gradually extinguished one by one, is bewitchingly caught.
Marais' lament on the death of his teacher, the great Monsieur de Ste Colombe, follows the Leçons; a remarkable tombeau for viola da gamba, given great weight and conviction in this performance by Heinrich. She resists any temptation to self-indulge in rhythmic waywardness and the effect is all the more moving for that.
A prelude by Ste Colombe's son and a magnificat by Couperin round off what is a coherent, measured and ultimately deeply affecting response to the reflections of Holy Week.