Couperin’s three surviving Leçons de Ténèbres (settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to be sung at the office of Tenebrae in Holy Week) are surely some of the greatest glories of the French Baroque and a validation of the musical taste of Louis XIV. The first two lessons are scored for just one voice, and then to heighten the dramatic and spiritual intensity of the music, the third lesson is scored for two voices.
English soprano Carolyn Sampson and Norwegian mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland deploy their different voices to great effect in the first two lessons, and when they come together we hear how complementary their instruments are, giving the music an admirable amount of light and shade, particularly in the urgent final refrain, “Jerusalem, return to the Lord, your God”. Robert King and his consort afford nuanced support for the singers, opting for traditional organ continuo. For an alternative view with harpsichord continuo, the account with William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and sopranos Sophie Daneman and Patricia Petibon remains a classic.
Apart from strong performances in the main work, the added appeal of this newcomer lies in the generous selection of makeweights. These include Couperin’s famous motet for Easter Day and the Magnificat as well as a number of instrumental items by Marais and Sainte-Colombe fils that make a welcome contrast.