François Couperin's L’Apothéose de Lully (1725) – described in the original French as a “Concert Instrumental” – is an intriguing work, effectively summing up the composer's artistic and aesthetic manifesto. Having justified his introduction to France of the Italianate trio-sonata form in L’Apothéose de Corelli the year before, and arguing for a unification of styles (Les goûts réunis), Couperin next sought to exalt the musical models set by Lully, as the paradigm of the French national style to be juxtaposed with the Italian.
In this lively sequence of dances and instrumental episodes, the allegorical narrative is preserved by prefacing each number with Stéphane Dégout’s declamation (in French) of its title or description. Couperin's musical eulogy, then, is more a linear progression rather than a synthesis, and under Jonathan Cohen’s direction the members of Arcangelo delineate the movements’ different characters beautifully.
Lully is first depicted performing music in the Elysian Fields, with a mournful, languishing pulse for the ‘Concertant avec les Ombres liriques’, which is then enlivened by the subsequent ‘Air’, its notated sequences of regular quavers correctly interpreted in a dotted rhythm as notes inégales in accordance with French taste. Lully is summoned to Mount Parnassus by Apollo, the god of music, which prompts the envious mutterings of the composer’s contemporaries in the Underworld. Arcangelo evocatively realises the icy shrillness of their plaints, expressed by Couperin in a sequence of trilled parallel chords which echo the cold people’s shivering in Lully’s opera Isis (which in turn was the inspiration for the depiction of the ‘Cold Genius’ in Purcell’s King Arthur).
Lully’s arrival in the Upper World is met by Corelli and the Italian muses, and although Arcangelo performs ‘Accueil entre-Doux et -Agard’ (Bittersweet Welcome) with solemnity, the musicians later articulate the quavers with an almost-caricatured Italianate style as detached notes of equal value, standing in opposition to the French manner. Apollo’s suggestion that the “perfection of music” could be attained by the union of styles occasions a clutch of pieces which integrate those two musical styles, including a final ‘Sonade en Trio’ (pointedly avoiding the Italian term, sonata), despatched with lithe sympathetic ease.
Despite Arcangelo’s poise and finesse throughout, there could be a greater effect of narrative direction and urgency overall across the whole in order to forge something more than an extended suite of instrumental dainties, and Jordi Savall’s 1985 recording probably retains the edge in that respect.
This Hyperion release perhaps misses a trick by not including Couperin’s homage to Corelli, but for the filler Arcangelo turns to a work of genuine religious ritual, one of Couperin's most-famous compositions, Leçons de ténèbres, which receives exemplary performances from Katherine Watson and Anna Dennis who provide finely controlled and sensuous singing – not least in the long lines they both sustain, solo and in duet in the third set. Their interpretations are expressive (using a French-style pronunciation of the Latin text, the latter and an English translation included in the booklet), particularly in the exquisitely elaborated melismas on the initial letters of each verse of the Biblical text (an acrostic poem in the Hebrew original), with Watson tending to cultivate a more yearning vibrato whereas Dennis sustains penetrating clarity.
However, they render the settings of the text of the Lamentations with directness, embellishing the notes tastefully and spontaneously whilst each part of the continuo adds subtle rhythmic ardour without unsettling the whole, least of all the more-percussive tones of the lute in Thomas Dunford’s skilful support. René Jacobs’s recording brings a touch more drama, but this from Arcangelo offers strong competition to William Christie’s version with Sophie Daneman and Patricia Petibon or that by Lucy Crowe and Elizabeth Watts with David Bates and La Nuova Musica.