Review: The Rarely Heard Christmas Music of a Baroque Master

In 1675, François Joseph de Lorraine, Duke of Guise, died after hitting his head when he fell from the arm of his nurse. He was 4 years old and, following the early death of his father, was the last heir to his illustrious French dynasty.

His great-aunt Marie de Lorraine was heartbroken — and immensely wealthy, now that the full fortune of the House of Guise went to her. In the years leading up to her death, in 1688, Marie poured her philanthropic energies into projects devoted to the cult of the Holy Child, including a fraternity that chanted the Office of the Infant Jesus every Sunday and held all-night vigils on the 25th of each month.

As Marie’s house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier suddenly found himself writing a lot of Christmas music.

On Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights, the French early-music group Ensemble Correspondances presented a program of Advent and Nativity-theme works by Charpentier that was full of sensual freshness — with occasional stabs of melancholy. The centerpiece of the concert, which was presented under the auspices of the series Music Before 1800 and led from the harpsichord by Sébastien Daucé, was the Christmas Pastorale, an affecting marriage of the bucolic and the spiritual that Charpentier reworked several times for the House of Guise.

This composer is a specialty of this brilliant group, made up of young vocalists and instrumentalists on recorders, violins and various stringed bass instruments. In Marie de Lorraine, Charpentier had found a patron who encouraged artistic experimentation, and he gathered a stellar band of musicians at her private court. Seizing on ample historical records, each Correspondances singer has taken to identifying with a specific member of Charpentier’s circle, so that in concert they not only interpret a musical line but also bring to life a flesh-and-blood Baroque musician.

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Perhaps that is what lent such appealing robustness to this performance. From the opening “O Salutaris,” one of a series of liturgical songs composed for the last days of Advent, it was clear that this is an ensemble of individuals with strong vocal personalities.

One standout talent is the bass Nicolas Brooymans, who brought magnetic lyricism to his solos. In one of the most arresting moments in the Pastorale, he appeared as the Elder among shepherds, invoking the prophesies of the scriptures to deliver peace “after all the noise and din of the changing of the monarchies.” With this bass solo, followed by a chorus of downward tumbling phrases (“O heavens, drop down your dew”) and an instrumental Symphony of the Night, Charpentier magically sets up the burst of light that is the appearance of the angels in the following scene.

As those angels, the sopranos Caroline Dangin-Bardot and Caroline Weynants found a beautiful balance between clarity and warmth. Another star anchoring the ensemble is the clarion mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot, who recently gave a spine-tingling performance as Berlioz’s Cléopâtre at Carnegie Hall.

In this religious repertory, she brought urgency to every note. It was this personal commitment — shared by the eloquent instrumentalists — that brought drama into a performance of music that, however sensitively constructed, can sometimes feel glazed and merely gallant.

Ensemble Correspondances
Performed on Sunday at Corpus Christi Church, Manhattan.

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