Seventeenth century Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi is known mostly for his oratorio Jephte, one of the towering dramatic works of the Baroque era. Here the French historical-instrument ensemble La Fenice explores some of his other works, delving into his adaptation of the language of opera to sacred ends. The results are spectacular, beginning with the famous Georges de la Tour painting of a girl staring into a candle frame that graces the cover. The painting plunges the listener into the lush yet philosophical world of Baroque sacred music, and La Fenice, director Jean Tubéry, and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur pick up the ball with a rich sound that is achieved by a comparatively small group of players. They employ two unusual original instruments that give a sumptuous sound: a three-register Baroque harp and a lirone, a large viol on which the bow can sound three strings at once.
But the greatest accomplishment lies in the works unearthed. The opening Vanitas Vanitatum is designated an oratorio but more resembles a sacred cantata -- there is no narration or story. Rather, soloists intone verses describing the pleasures and works and consolations of earthly life -- science, philosophy, engineering, political power, even music, which gets an especially flowery setting -- after which the choir grimly intones the words "Omnia vanitas, Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas" (All is vanity, vanity of vanities, all is vanity -- the text is inspired by but not drawn from the Book of Ecclesiastes). In a second part, soloists ask, "Where have they gone, the sages, or kings, or giants who made a show of their strength?" "They are dust and ashes," answers the implacable choir. In its intensely dramatic presentation of philosophical ideas, the work makes one think of J.S. Bach transplanted to a different time, place, and religious tradition. Almost as interesting are the other works on the disc, which show Carissimi in the process of working out the relationship between sacred and secular. The secular cantata Serenata sciolto havean dall'alte sponde, with parts for two lovers and a basso god asking them to return to shore from storm-tossed waters, serves as the basis, in the Renaissance parody fashion, for a Missa sciolto havean dall'alte sponde. The parody procedure at this late date is unusual, but the pairing offers numerous insights into Carissimi's musical language, and both works are gorgeous examples of what can be done with a basically declamatory musical language. The disc is beautifully recorded and handsomely presented -- hard, all in all, to improve upon in any way.