This two-CD set includes previous Virgin releases of liturgical music by two French composers of the French middle Baroque, the brilliant and acclaimed Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the very obscure Pierre Tabart. The Parisian de Guise family was stricken by multiple tragedies and then commissioned Charpentier to commemorate them in his Mass and Motet for the Dead and a work that has come to be known as Miserere des Jésuites. This is therefore not a particularly upbeat CD, but neither is it glumly mournful, and the works are ample demonstration of the intense expressiveness of Charpentier's imagination and of the individuality of his gift for creating music that steers clear of convention and cliché and goes straight for the heart. Conductor Jean Tubéry, leading Choeur de Chambre de Namur and his own instrumental group, Ensemble La Fenice, has a sure grasp of the style of the French middle Baroque, and this material, which in less capable hands could come across as a downer, is full of passion, deep feeling, and a lively sense of momentum. The tone of the choir is full but absolutely pure and, along with the instrumentalists, responds with finesse to Tubéry's leadership. The very fine vocal soloists sing with purity and intensity, and their handling of the delicate and expressive ornamentation seems like second nature.
Pierre Tabart left only six surviving works, all sacred choral pieces, and this CD includes three of them, the Te Deum, Magnificat, and Requiem. His music doesn't have the individuality of Charpentier's, but its highly sophisticated, elaborate counterpoint and its virtuosic vocal demands demonstrate that there was a diversity of styles of liturgical music in France around the turn of the 18th century. These pieces are written for four or five voices and continuo, and Tubéry leads Ensemble La Fenice in an inventive realization of the continuo part. He uses single voices for some sections, creating a nice contrast with the sections using full choir, the exemplary Ensemble Jacques Moderne, which sings with purity, fine blend, and excellent intonation. The focused intonation is especially highlighted in the unaccompanied Dies Irae, in which a solo voice intones the traditional plainchant, its phrases alternating with homophonic sections for the men's voices alone. The austerity of Tabart's setting is a vivid depiction of the scary desolation of the text and a terrifically effective contrast with the other richly polyphonic movements. The sound of Virgin's CD is clean and present. This is a release that should appeal strongly to fans of Baroque choral music.