Emma Kirkby / Agnès Mellon

Couperin, Lalande: Leçons de Ténèbres

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The Leçons de Ténèbres, or "lessons of darkness," represent a special use during Holy Week of the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah -- they are sung (or read) in services that conclude with the extinguishing of a candle. When the series of nine services is complete, the last candle is put out and the congregants are left in darkness. François Couperin composed a set of nine lessons, but only the three performed here survive. Each verse begins with the intonation of a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The lessons are for one or two solo voices with continuo and are in a conservative, rather minimal style that bears a spiritual affinity to the later works of Schütz -- quite a contrast from the sensual world of Couperin's keyboard music. Various good recordings exist, but few have the sheer vocal perfection of this version by veteran sopranos Emma Kirkby and Agnès Mellon. The highlight of the disc is the third lesson (track 3), where they sing together -- the contrast between their voices, Kirkby's less crystalline than it used to be but no less light and agile, Mellon's meatier and sharper -- is a sublime thing. An hour of this music is a lot unless you're in an appropriately contemplative mood, and the vocal purity can wear on you after a while; the interpretations here are not particularly dramatic or "lamenting." Contrast is provided, however, by the inclusion of Tenebrae lessons by Michel-Richard de Lalande -- they are cut from the same cloth as Couperin's but are more tuneful, and you realize just how much Couperin has done to maintain a pitch of intensity. The disc is beautifully recorded, and those who are sent into orbit by Emma Kirkby's voice will be amply rewarded here; she hasn't lost a step.

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