Astrée's Messes des Jésuits des Pekin (Mass of the Jesuits in Beijing) features Jean-Christophe Frisch and serves as a follow-up to Frisch's groundbreaking album Baroque Concert at the Forbidden City; before the release of that disc, hardly anyone was aware that Baroque music was even heard in eighteenth century China. This disc, with the vocal parts jointly performed by the Ensemble Meihua Fleur de Prunus and the Chœur du Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris under François Picard and the instrumental ones by the confusingly named Musique des Lumières XVIII-21, features a handsome portrait of eighteenth century Jesuit priest Joseph-Marie Amiot. The way the cover is laid out, it makes it look like Amiot composed the work identified as "Messe des Jésuites de Pekin," which he didn't; it was published a century earlier for Jesuit use by Charles d'Ambleville. Amiot's work as represented here is taken from manuscript canticles written for use in Chinese Catholic services and d'Ambleville's music is used to envelop these pieces within a liturgical context. Along the way, a number of additional pieces by Simon Boyleau and Téodorico Pédrini are added to help break up the program. Frisch admits that in a typical Jesuit service in China it is unlikely that all of these pieces would have been used in a single service, though it does provide some additional music in this rare genre that proves enjoyable anyway.
Now that this complexity is out of the way, the program as a whole strikes one as a hodgepodge, but the singing of the Chœur du Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris is beautiful and the handling of traditional Chinese instruments very tasteful and idiomatic. As an experience at the most basic level, Mass of the Jesuits in Beijing is a remarkable release, as Chinese singing and instruments collide with Baroque trio sonatas and d'Ambleville's deliberately arcane Latin mass movements. Overall, these were written to avoid complexity and, although stated in a recognizably Baroque polyphonic style, convey elements of plainness and purity that possess qualities of innocence. One's interest holds up well through most of the disc, although it gets a little bogged down in the final brace of canticles as a more limited application of the traditional instruments is applied; in this sense, Baroque Concert at the Forbidden City is a more successful outing. Nevertheless, Astrée's Amiot: Mass of the Jesuits in Beijing is still a first-rate entry into a very little explored area of Baroque repertoire. This is the original, 1998 release of the disc, out of print but reissued in 2007 by Naïve, the successor to Astrée.