Malcolm Proud and ensemble at Kevin Barry Room, on 21 November 2018

With each concert of this series the audience has grown, and as the final is reached tonight the Kevin Barry Room is possibly the fullest it has ever been. Marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of French composer François Couperin, this gathering also recognises the enormous affection with which series curator, Malcolm Proud, is held.

Tonight’s programme looks to reflect the wider reach of Couperin’s output by presenting some of his vocal music. Ironically, however, while his great keyboard works are only rarely heard in concert, the main work this evening, his Trois Leçons de Ténèbres [‘Three Readings of Darkness’] for Holy Week, has actually received more than one performance in Dublin over the past few years, making it one of the better-known pieces in the series. This Lenten work, here shorn of both its seasonal and liturgical contexts, is an austere meditation for two female voices (no voice-type is specified), sung tonight by soprano Aisling Kenny and mezzo Sharon Carty, with continuo, played by Proud on chamber organ, with Nicholas Milne (bass viol) and Sofie Vanden Eynde (theorbo). Setting passages from the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah, it reflects a time of fear and disarray, and a crisis of faith.

Each singer sings one Leçon alone, before joining together for the third as an extended duet. Singing the second Leçon, Sharon Carty gives a sensitive performance, projecting the meaning of the text with compassion and understanding. Her tone is as expressive as ever, and she presents a compelling case for this material, bringing dramatic focus and a hint of sublime mystery in the section’s plaintive close. Her partner, Aisling Kenny, opens the work effectively but seems to take a while to fully inhabit the music. The low-lying range of much of the material does not help, making one wonder if she was perhaps miscast for this work. She is heard to better effect in the third Leçon, as the silvery line of her soprano is finally allowed to show through, with Carty’s voice scaled back to create a beautiful blend.

Malcolm Proud

Lamentations of a different kind are suggested in the music that follows, as Proud returns to the harpsichord for a selection of four pieces from Couperin’s Ordre No. 3 in C minor. Supposedly reflecting the austerity of the closing years of Louis XIV’s reign, the gently muted air of the final chaconne (reduced to two beats rather than the usual three-beat rhythm) nevertheless hints at hidden richness. Proud’s playing brings across the gentle intrigue of this thoughtful work beautifully.

Giving a sense of musical context, the programme also draws on music by two of Couperin’s contemporaries, Marin Marais and Henry Purcell. Marais’ Tombeau pour Sieur de Ste-Colombe, written in memory of his teacher, is tenderly performed by Nicholas Milne, showing an innate sense of the sweep and intensity of this style of viol-playing. While Marais’ music is an obvious match for Couperin’s approach to keyboard style, bringing Purcell to this mix is a less successful idea. What would have been the perfect place for vocal music by any one of Couperin’s compatriots, composers rarely heard now, is instead given over to Purcell’s O dive custos (Elegy for Queen Mary)—a restrained exercise in courtly lament, sung very effectively by Kenny and Carty. The two singers return at the end for Couperin’s sunny Motet pour le jour de Pâques, making the journey from Holy Week to Easter in a superbly-controlled performance of this virtuoso duet. Promising light and victory, it is a fitting end to this series, which will hopefully see more explorations of this under-performed material.

François Couperin: Trois Leçons de Ténèbres; selection from Ordre No. 3 in C minor [La Ténébreuse; Seconde Courante; La Lugubre; La Favorite]
Henry Purcell: O dive custos (Elegy for Queen Mary), Z.504
Marin Marais: Tombeau pour Sieur de Ste Colombe
Couperin: Motet pour le jour de Pâques