French-baroque enthusiasts will perhaps recognise Michel Lambert’s name for the hundreds of songs he composed for the court of Louis XIV, and maybe also as the father-in-law of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Born in 1610, Lambert was a dancer and singing teacher before establishing himself as a composer in the 1650s, and he became the king’s maître de musique de la chambre. As well as courtly airs, Lambert’s responsibilities included writing music for the liturgy, and his two settings of the Tenebrae Responsories, intended to accompany the complex church rituals of the final three days of Holy Week, were regularly performed at public services.
Though Lambert’s second set of Leçons de Ténèbres is relatively well known, this is a recording of the earlier set, appearing on disc for the first time. Written for a solo male voice with continuo, it is one of the earliest known French settings of the responsories, with texts culled from Old Testament Lamentations, Augustine’s commentary on the psalms, and Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians and the Hebrews. It proved a hugely influential model for subsequent French composers, including Marc-Antoine Charpentier and François Couperin.
Lambert’s manuscript gives detailed instructions on the ornamentation of the vocal lines and the virtuosic melismata they weave around the plainsong skeletons, but it leaves the exact relationship between the voice and the accompaniment very approximate. Getting that alignment right was a major challenge for the baritone Marc Mauillon ( whose voice is described, slightly preciously, on the sleeve by the archaic name of “basse-taille”) and his continuo group of bass viol, theorbo and positive organ. The performance certainly seems to be smooth enough, if a little unrelenting, though the rather closeup perspective of the recording may have something to do with that.