, January 2005
"Comparison Recordings of music by Charpentier.
Te Deum. Martini, Pasdeloup SO, Jeunesses Cho., mono LP MHS 531 (USA only)
Messe de Minuit pour Noël, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Erato 8573-85820-2
The US won her independence from England in one very nasty war. As the younger Mrs. Windsor reminded citizens of the US during her address to us in 1976, her family at once took the initiative in trying to heal that breach, such healing being largely complete by 1917, a mere 140 years or so. Canada, on the other hand, fought at least three wars with England including two with the US before finally attaining full nationhood after two hundred years of gradualism. As if to make up for lost time, Canada has moved rapidly forward into the task of creating a unique nation and unique institutions to serve her. Any person or nation who assumes that Canada is merely an unimportant appendage upon either the UK or the US is setting themselves up for an embarrassing comeuppance.
Over the years I have greatly enjoyed many weeks of visiting in Canada with Canadians and I entertain the strongest best wishes for them. And, all music lovers everywhere are aware of the great contributions made to modern musical art by such Canadian artists as Glenn Gould, Bernard Labadie, and Maureen Forrester.
One of the areas where Canada has greatly excelled her southern neighbours is in the respect accorded to her native peoples, who are now uniformly referred to as the "First Nations" on the modern territory [even at times when it is rhetorically absurd to do so]. There is, naturally, in their mutual history a complex sequence of barter, cultural approach, cultural mixture, cultural domination, cultural subversion, heroism, tragedy, and other facets of intermingling. At the time Charpentier was writing this mass, using contemporary French Christmas carols as themes, a French Jesuit missionary was teaching Christianity to the native Canadians and translating this same French Christmas music into their language. In commemoration of this event in their history, one of the Canadian artists in this recording sings that carol not in Latin, nor in French, but in the Huron language as translated from the French in 1642. Europeans and Americans in the US may see this as an annoying bit of obscurantism, but I see it as a proud and noble gesture, an assertion of the original inclusive spirit of Christmas in an age when that spirit has been subsumed into a banal commercialism — and perhaps more important a uniquely Canadian gesture.
The Te Deum, whose introductory march was made famous as the opening music for a television drama program, is brilliantly performed in beautiful modern sound, with flamboyant flourishes from the timpani. One is naturally reminded of the fabulous Louis Martini recording from 1949, first released in North America on LP on the Haydn Society label, and one of the finest recordings of anything ever done.*
The Christmas Midnight Mass as presented here is an odd work. The kyrie is made up of traditional French Christmas carol tunes, and in this recording they are each sung first with the original French words, and then with the Latin words, except for the third of them sung in the Huron language. Ah, you say, with my modern programmable CD player I can skip these interpolations and play the mass as it usually is played — but I’m afraid you can’t. You either hear the Kyrie exactly as they want you to or you don’t hear it at all. If this is a problem for you, then you will prefer the more conventional Christie recording, which stays with the Latin texts, but give you some instrumental-only versions of the carols which you can skip if you choose.
Forward from the gloria, which is only a brief bit of chant, both groups play the same notes and things are more conventional.
This group recently recorded the Vivaldi Dixit Dominus RV 595 which is fast and joyous, similar in mood to the Handel Dixit Dominus which I have always loved. Charpentier’s setting of the text begins more solemnly, opening up into a grandeur reminiscent of Gabrieli.
Overall, apart from the differences in the program, Les Arts Florissants perform with stricter authentic performance practice, all their soloists being drilled to the final edge of perfection in period vocal technique, whereas the Canadians are equally as enthusiastic. The other items on the disk are more interesting, but their soloists tend to sound a little churchy.
* Astonishingly, that monophonic recording was able to capture the rich reverberant acoustic of the French cathedral, a feat hardly duplicated since then."