VIVAT describes itself as “an exciting, new, artist driven, independent label, bringing recordings of exceptional artistic merit and outstanding technical quality.” It is a non-profit organization that reinvests the revenue from its recordings into new projects. Funds are also raised through the Vivat Music Foundation, which is registered as a charity in the United Kingdom.
According to its home page, the label has, thus far, released four recordings, three of which feature an ensemble called The King’s Consort. This name may be a bit of a pun, since its director is named Robert King. It was founded by King in 1980; and, with both instrumentalists and a full choir, it has become one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to historically informed performance.
The second release in the VIVAT catalog, which came out this past April, offers a delightfully informative collection of the sacred music of François Couperin, interspersed with viol music by two of his contemporaries. The major portion of this recording is devoted to the three surviving compositions (presumably from a set of nine) of Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres collection. We may assume that these were the first three of the original plan, since they set the first fourteen verses of the first chapter of Lamentations (the first five verses in the first piece, the next four in the second, and the following five in the third). Thus, we cannot be sure if Couperin continued his project after completing these three compositions.
The music is set for high voice: solo soprano (Carolyn Sampson) in the first, mezzo (Marianne Beate Kielland) in the second, and a duo in the third. On this recording the continuo is provided by King on chamber organ, Lynda Sayce on theorbo, and Susanne Heinrich performing on a seven-string bass viol. However, the opening measures of the second Leçon (reproduced in the accompanying booklet and also show in the accompanying illustration) indicate that it begins with a duet for voice and viol.
Those manuscript fragments are one of the features that make the booklet as useful as the recording. I was particularly impressed that the opening page with the track listing not only took the trouble to give the frequency for the tuning A (392 Hz) but also the the temperament, the system conceived by Thomas Young. Some readers may recognize that this is the approach to tuning that Frank French used for his recording of the 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Young did not develop this system until 1799 (over half a century after Couperin’s death). However, it lends character to specific chromatics without compromising the sonorities of any of the possible keys.
There is also an element of performance, which often risks being overlooked, concerning the pronunciation of Latin texts. Most of us are used to hearing Latin sung with an Italianate pronunciation, sometimes referred to as “Church Latin.” However, early eighteen-century France did not always turn to the Vatican to set the standards for how their services were conducted. Thus, all the texts on this recording are sung with a readily recognizable French accent, which is presumably how Couperin (not to mention his royal patron, King Louis XIV) wanted them to be sung. Where familiar texts are concerned (such as the Magnificat setting that concludes this recording), this takes a bit of acclimatization; but it also tends to inform the mind of the attentive listener when it comes to how Couperin deals with embellishments, particularly those involving chromatic pitches. Thus, what may first strike one as alien about these vocal performances is actually one of the characteristics that makes them historically informed.
I should also call attention to Heinrich’s viol performances beyond her accompanying role in the vocal selections. Two of these are by Marin Marais, one of which is a memorial to a somewhat mysterious figure known only as “Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe,” who was probably one of Marais’ teachers and who left a legacy of 170 compositions strictly for the seven-string viol. The other is an unaccompanied prelude in E minor by the composer known as “Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils,” whose relationship to Marais’ teacher is as questionable as any other claims about the elder Sainte-Colombe.
All of these pieces received stimulating performances by Heinrich, each of which is a gem in its own right. Marais’ use of glissando in his memorial piece is particularly striking. Regular readers, particularly those who follow by San Francisco site, know that I am a sucker for well-performed viol music; and one could not ask for better expressive technique in these three relatively brief selections.