Some may wring their hands over a perceived decline in the classical recording industry, but early music enthusiasts haven't a care in the world. Who'd have thought that there'd be a market for a five-CD box set of works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), a French Baroque composer who was completely unknown even to specialists just 60 years ago?
These are not new readings but a compiled set of classic 1980s recordings by the historical-instrument ensemble that has reintroduced much of the concertgoing and music-buying world to French Baroque music: Les Arts Florissants (who take their name from a delightful Charpentier dramatic work included here) and their U.S.-born leader and harpsichordist William Christie. The five CDs offer a reasonable survey of Charpentier's music, much of which was written for the church or the theater -- and which especially emphasized the oratorio, the genre in which sacred and theatrical met. Charpentier was a student of the great Roman oratorio composer Giacomo Carissimi, and his works easily weave Italian dramatic elements with a grand, bright choral style that seems to reflect the reign of the Sun King (even if it was Lully rather than Charpentier who stood at the center of Louis XIV's inner circle). The liner notes clearly introduce the various genres included and explain their place in French musical life of the period, helping the listener catch the appeal of such hybrids as the "nativity pastoral" that opens the whole set. A curious omission is the Charpentier Midnight Mass, probably the composers's best-known work and one which Les Arts Florissants did record during this period. A wealth of other Christmas music, however, is offered in its place -- and probably the intent was to broaden public knowledge of Charpentier's work in general.
All the music was beautifully recorded in a variety of Parisian churches, and the changes in sonic environment noticeable between the recordings made in different places is far greater than any change resulting from the mid-'80s switch from analog to digital recording. One realizes in listening to these recordings how much they've shaped the common conceptions of how Baroque choral music recorded in churches is supposed to sound. One disappointment is the lack of English translations in the booklet (or of any other translations, except for Latin to French). Text-setting is less paramount in Charpentier's music than in that of other French Baroque composers, but at the very least a link to online translations would be a help.