Composers: Charpentier
Compositions: Caecilia, virgo et martyr, Motet pour les Trépassés, Judith sive Bethulia liberata, Mors Saülis et Jonathae
Performers: Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HM90228081
(2CDs + DV

I well remember the thrill of discovery, three decades ago, when Harmonia Mundi set the gold standard for performances of the French Baroque repertoire with the pioneering recordings of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Some operas were familiar from the quirky recordings of Jean-Claude Malgoire but the sacred works of the 17th century were très, très recherché. The label continues to dazzle with its latest generation of artists who have exceeded that standard. I have been bowled over by Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances’ previous Charpentier offerings so the prospect of a luxury release of the Histoires Sacrées in the manner of their award winning Le Concert Royal de la Nuit had me salivating.

Daucé has selected three substantial histoires; an early form of oratorio based on the Roman model as Charpentier picked up from his study there with Carissimi – the narrative carried by the ‘historicus’ (singer(s) or chorus) with characters in dialogue, interjection and lamentation, conflicting groups expressed with double chorus. Interspersed with the lengthier works are briefer motets and dialogues.

The first half of the program exalts the ‘femme forte’ as represented by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalena and Judith (she of beheading Holofernes fame) – figures of virtuous fidelity, then prominent in the Jesuit-led pushback after the Reformation and an ideal for Charpentier’s two pious patrons, Mlle and Mme de Guise. The second half presents such other Jesuit favoured themes as charity, abnegation and humility exemplified by Dialogus inter Christum et Peccatores (inspired by the Mount of Olives prayer), Pestis Mediolanensis (glorifying archbishop Borromeo’s fearless ministrations
to the famine and plague-ravaged folk of Milan), or Mors Saülis et Jonathae (warning of Saul’s turning away from God while ennobling the devoted virtuous friendship – ahem – of David and Jonathan).

The performances are exemplary, with an urgency and conviction that reinforces the nature of these works as mini-dramas of distilled potency. The singers tear into the dialogues and choruses with a perfect equilibrium of passionate warmth and gleaming purity underpinned by a generous ensemble of instruments with a rich continuo – hugely imaginative playing exploiting sonority and texture – the lament of souls in purgatory, a toe-curling delight of dissonance and suspensions.

Amongst such an extraordinary ensemble of singers I have to praise sopranos Judith Fa and Caroline Weynants, mezzo Lucile Richardot and tenor Davy Cornillot; listen to the latter pair as Mary Magdalena and Christ outside the tomb and weep. Lavish production values, scholarly documentation and a bonus DVD – let the awards flow.