Michel-Richard de Lalande, Leçons de Ténèbres, Sophie Karthäuser, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé. (Courtesy of Harmonia Mundi)
Michel-Richard de Lalande, “Leçons de Ténèbres,” Sophie Karthäuser, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé. Harmonia Mundi

From the Passions of J. S. Bach to the Masses of Mozart, dramatic and operatic styles invaded church music in the 18th century; while in France, Louis XIV’s love of opera and dance was reflected in the music for his Chapelle Royale. This recording examines some elaborate solo music composed by the most important composer who served the French royal chapel, Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726).

Many Catholic composers created elaborate musical settings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to frame readings proper to the three final days of Holy Week, leading up to Easter. Lalande created his operatic solo versions of these readings, the “Leçons de Ténèbres,” for celebrations at the Couvent de l’Assomption, a community of nuns on the Rue Saint-Honore in Paris. It was not uncommon for the more musically refined religious communities in Paris to decorate their liturgies with pieces sung by professional musicians. Lalande often wrote these for his gifted daughters to sing, until they died of smallpox in 1711.

This new recording is thoroughly French, down to the pronunciation of the Latin, with its quirky French “u” and nasal vowels, and the informative booklet essay by Thomas Leconte. The soprano on the solo parts, Sophie Karthäuser, is in the same category of clear and limpid sound as Claire Lefilliâtre (who recorded the pieces with Le Poème Harmonique on Alpha) and Isabelle Desrochers (on Naïve), but with a little more grain in the voice to make her tone less waiflike.

Sébastien Daucé, who leads his Ensemble Correspondances from the organ, takes nice tempos, keeping this sometimes meditative music, with its ornate melismas on the text’s initial Hebrew letters, from dragging. The musicians give the accompaniment, a single basso continuo line, pleasing variety because of the various combinations of bass viol, harpsichord, organ, lute and theorbo. For example, the group makes a beautifully dark sound on the “In tenebrosis” movement of the Holy Thursday piece, matched excellently with the slight edge in Karthäuser’s voice, evoking the despair of being led into dark places.

The disc is rounded out with Lalande’s celebrated setting of the “Miserere,” published in the same posthumous collection as the “Leçons de Ténèbres.” A beautifully matched chamber choir of women’s voices takes the role of the cultured nunsin the alternate verses of the “Miserere,” as well as three Gregorian antiphons, transcribed from the processional for the Royal Abbey of Chelles.

Charles T. Downey

Downey is a freelance writer.

Schumann: Piano Concerto, Op 54; Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 80. Alexander Melnikov, piano; Isabelle Faust, violin; Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; Freiburger Baroque Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor. Harmonia mundi.

Of the first-generation Romantics, the group of composers born around 1810, Schumann is the one who has seen the greatest change in status in recent decades. It’s hard to find a radically new approach to the small, jewel-like output of the perennially popular Chopin without detouring into eccentricity; Mendelssohn, despite the best efforts of his champions, never seems to get a real reevaluation; and while Liszt is certainly heard more frequently now than 50 years ago, his music seems as dependent as ever on the taste and sympathy of his interpreters. In Schumann’s case, interest was long focused on a relatively small segment of his music; the later works were considered inferior, somehow clouded by his impending descent into madness. These days, though, more people are looking at the totality of Schumann’s oeuvre, without prejudice, and it seems especially fresh and vital when performed on the instruments that he knew and loved.

One example arrives in the latest installment of an exciting Schumann project involving the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, and three musicians who perform together as a chamber ensemble: violinist Isabelle Faust, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexander Melnikov. Melnikov plays the solo part in the Piano Concerto on an 1837 French piano by Érard. In Schumann’s Second Trio with Faust and Queyras, he plays an 1847 Viennese instrument by Streicher.

Both of these pianos have a quieter, leaner, more silvery sound than the modern Steinway. And the Freiburg orchestra, 39 expert players on 19th-century instruments, is a good bit smaller than the contemporary norm. These are both critical factors in the exquisite instrumental balances on this recording. Myriad details that are simply inaudible on modern instruments burst forth in full dimension here.

Indeed, the Piano Concerto sounds startlingly robust, even as its lyrical passages assume aching poignancy. The first movement cadenza threatens to ignite. When the delicate slow movement diffidently bows out, an unrushed finale struts center-stage, as elegant as it is irresistibly charming. While Melnikov plays with subtle nuance, his approach is basically straightforward, which is the key to his eloquence.

Schumann: Piano Concerto, Op 54; Piano Trio No 2, Op 80. Alexander Melnikov, piano; Isabelle Faust, violin. (Courtesy of Harmonia Mundi)

If the collaboration with Heras-Casado opens new windows on the Concerto, the hand-in-glove ensemble of Faust, Queyras and Melnikov seems to penetrate the heart of the F-major Trio. Subtlety and finesse are the operatives in what will be one of the best recordings of the work for some time.

Patrick Rucker

Rucker is a freelance writer.