HumanitiesWeb.org - Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Capturing the Essence of French Nobility [Recommended Recordings]
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Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Recommended Recordings



La Descente d'Orphée
(Paul Agnew, Fernand Bernadi, et al; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor)
The myth of Orpheus--the divine musician who went to Hades to rescue his bride Eurydice from the dead and whose song actually persuaded Pluto to release her--has been irresistible to operatic composers from Monteverdi to Offenbach. One of the happiest rediscoveries of the Baroque revival is this lovely one-act chamber opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, which combines the gentle lilt typical of French Baroque music with the beautiful melodies and delicious suspensions in which Charpentier excelled. Charpentier diverged from the myth in one important respect: he omitted the tragic ending in which Orpheus loses Eurydice a second time, instead allowing the couple to live happily ever after. Orpheus is sung by Baroque tenor extraordinaire Paul Agnew, whose pure, sweet, and flexible singing would convince Pluto to release the dead from Hell if anyone's could. Sophie Daneman, Monique Zanetti, Patricia Petibon, and Jean-François Gardeil head a cast without a single weak link; the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants are as skillful and sensitive as always. If you want to sample French Baroque opera at its best without investing in a three- or four-disc set, you can do no better than this. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Le Reniement De Saint Pierre
(Philippe Cantor, Ian Honeyman, et al; : Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor)
Charpentier's short Latin oratorio on the denial of St. Peter may have been intended for performance in a Holy Week church service, but it is among the most dramatic works he ever wrote. The dialogue is set as believably as in any opera; Peter's increasingly frantic denials as questions from the bystanders (sung by voices in the chorus) swirl around him are gripping; the grinding, anguished dissonances in the final chorus (on the words "and wept bitterly") are stunning. The Lenten meditations for male voices that complete the disc are less dramatic, but beautifully somber. (They include, by the way, a fascinating reduction for three voices of the St. Peter oratorio.) (review by Matthew Westphal)

Médée
(François Bazola, Bernard Delétré, et al; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor)
Charpentier's Médée gets this writer's vote for the greatest opera of the entire French Baroque era. In their retelling of the Medea legend, Charpentier and his librettist Corneille combine all the grace, charm, and artifice typical of the French Baroque era with truly gripping drama. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants give a thrilling performance with a fabulous cast featuring stellar high tenor Mark Padmore and "La Divina" Lorraine Hunt (yes, she is the Maria Callas of 18th-century opera) in the role that made her a Baroque superstar. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Pastorale
(Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor)
Charpentier's Pastorale is basically an elaborate French baroque Christmas pageant (and that's not a criticism) depicting the shepherds' vision of the angel and their pilgrimage to the manger in Bethlehem. It has some particularly charming examples of the pastoral music so beloved of French Baroque composers (for recorders, finger cymbals, and the like) and a gorgeous scene with Agnès Mellon leading the band of angels singing praises to God. "In nativitatem DNJC canticum" sets various verses of a Latin hymn of praise to a beguiling triple-time tune. As for the performance, it's a fine example of why, for twenty years, there have been no more persuasive interpreters of Charpentier than William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Te Deum
( Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor )
When the Te Deum and Mass were first recorded in the mid-1950s, they introduced many listeners to a French Baroque master of the highest level. Today these works, along with the beautiful Litanies, retain their power to charm and amaze. Charpentier's church music is one of the largest bodies of unknown masterworks in the literature of music. From the grandeur of trumpets and drums to the beautiful intimacy of the vocal recitatives, this is deeply satisfying music. The old recordings, overinflated and inauthentic, seemed to have more grandeur than the modern, state-of-the-art, stylistically aware versions. But Christie and his ensemble do truly beautiful work for Charpentier, with fine, transparent recording and complete texts in the booklet. (review by Leslie Gerber)

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