Marc Mauillon: the Leçons of Lambert

Less than a minute into this rare realization of the Leçons de Ténèbres des Mercredi, Jeudi et Vendredi saints by Michel Lambert (ca 1610–1696), I knew I had to review it. Recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 24/88.2 hi-rez by Alban Moraud, who did a wonderful job capturing the resonant acoustic of La Courroie, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, the 2-CD/51-track set showcases the extraordinarily agile, virtually vibrato-less and intentionally nasal bari-tenor of Marc Mauillon. Supporting him are three expert instrumentalists who are in high demand by most of France’s baroque ensembles: viola de gamba and bass viol player Myriam Rignol, harpsichordist and organist Marouan Markar-Bennis, and theorbo and lute specialist Thibaut Roussel.

The recording contains a unique performance of Lambert’s version of the same Leçons de Ténèbres that were famously set to music by Charpentier, Couperin, and Lalande. Lambert’s Leçons, however, were anything but written out in full. In the one score that survives, the vocal line, which is so richly ornamented with the turns and trills of Gregorian plainchant that the word “plain” seems out of place, does not exactly meld with the surviving basso continuo line. In order to create a viable version for performance, the four musicians had to do what many musicologists had failed to do—figure out a way to unite Lambert’s melodies and harmonies into a musically coherent whole.

Perhaps the musicians’ most potentially controversial decision was to ignore surviving reports from Lambert’s time that his Leçons were performed by three singers. Instead, taking permission from the fact that Lambert probably sang the pieces himself, and used the score solely as a memory aide as he embellished the vocal line while his supporting instrumentalists improvised around him, these modern early music specialists created a version for solo male voice.

That voice—Mauillon’s—is as reverent as it is haunting. His is a unique sound that, together with his pronunciation of early French, will seize many listeners. Even if you’re not into the religiosity of it all—I, for one, am not—the restrained ecstasy of Mauillon’s technically astounding realization of Lambert’s musical line, and his unblemished sincerity and devotion, will likely leave you transfixed.

Instrumental solos, duets and trios are rare in Lambert’s Leçons, and confined to short phrases preceding the vocal entrances. Regardless, in those brief moments, the sounds of those instruments in this acoustic is wondrous.

Perhaps to compensate for the fact that Mauillon’s virtuosity dominates the performance, the recording also includes a number of instrumental interludes by other composers: a Prélude non mesuré pour viole seule by Anonyme (attr. to Nicolas Hotman), an Allemande for bass viol and a Courante, both by Hotman, and the wondrous 4+ minute Tombeau de Mezangeau for lute by Ennemond Gaultier (approx. 1575–1651). Not being a specialist of the French Baroque, I didn’t know music by any of these composers before I began playing this disc. Now that I have heard these pieces—Gaultier’s solo for lute, here performed on theorbo, is extraordinary for its inventive flights—I’m eager to hear more.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that a hunger for the more obscure sacred music of the French baroque may not be shared by everyone who reads this. But once you hear Mauillon’s voice, and the flowing musicianship of his fellow artists, you will likely be hooked. On every level, this recording is a remarkable achievement.

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