Sfera Armoniosa

Françoise Couperin: Leçons de Ténébres

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François Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres, set to the Lamentations of Jeremiah and intended for use on Thursday of Holy Week (they may have been part of a larger set, now lost), would seem on cursory hearing to be light-years removed from his glittering keyboard works, so redolent of the hothouse atmosphere of the French court. Listen again, however, and you find connections: Couperin transfers his uncanny way of making an ornament hang in the air to these deeply serious, arioso settings of the Lamentations for one or two voices, plus continuo. The mood is somber, exploding periodically into more intense expressions of sadness. Dutch sopranos Johannette Zomer and Anne Grimm are early music specialists whose voices are quite complementary to one another. They sing quietly, with little vibrato, hanging slightly on the flat side of the pitch -- appropriate for these chamber-sized and personal works, with their mixture of piety and emotion that pops out toward the end of a phrase. But give a listen to their voices to make sure you're on board with the sound; it's unusual for those who haven't heard much Baroque singing. The accompaniment by La Sfera Armoniosa is dominated by an organ, with subtle contributions from theorbo and gamba -- a beautiful effect. The three Leçons, quite intense if you get into them, are broken up by instrumental works by Marin Marais and lutenist Robert de Visée. The sound of this Channel Classics release is a bit claustrophobic, but that fits the music in a way ... this disc is not for everyone, but listeners from the strongly reverential admirer of sacred music to French Baroque fans should investigate it.

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