The growth in popularity in the countertenor voice has worked to the benefit of the listener, who can now choose from among singers of various types. There are big-voiced, athletic singers specializing in operas and emphasizing the power a male soprano or alto can deliver. There are melancholy tragedians who trade in the dolorous sighs of the madrigalian singing in which countertenors were first heard in the middle of the twentieth century. And then there are the specialists, with distinctive voices of their own. One French publication called Philippe Jaroussky a "young singer with the tone of an angel and the virtuosity of the Devil." His voice cruises along with a shining tone and effortless purity and lightness, making it all the more surprising and effective when he launches into an explosive spasm of stabbing pain. Jaroussky has sung Baroque opera, but his modest-sized voice is really ideal in chamber music like that heard on this disc.
The composers represented here range from moderately known (Cavalli, Frescobaldi, Legrenzi, Grandi) to almost completely obscure, (Giovanni Felice Sances, Giovanni Paolo Caprioli). They were Italians, from Rome and Florence, who turned the new operatic language of the seventeenth century to a specialized end: worship of the Virgin Mary. These pieces, aside from a few instrumental works and one or two with more active vocal lines, are hushed, arioso or recitative utterances that turn the intensity of operatic textual language to religious ends. All the texts are in Latin, and most have been set many times, but never in quite such a temperamentally devotional way. The motet Vulnerasti cor meum, with its text from the Song of Songs ("Your breasts are more beautiful than wine, and the perfume of your ointment is above all spices"), is typical in its overall effect: this is the language of Monteverdi's later madrigals, compressed into a insider sacred language of quiet, intense feeling. And it all fits Jaroussky's voice deliciously well. Almost everything here is extremely low-key, with Jaroussky's exquisitely controlled voice floating serenely, largely without vibrato, above murmuring accompaniment from his own group, the Ensemble Artaserse (two violins, gamba, guitar, theorbo, and keyboard). Religious passion flares up in small fires in the Stabat mater dolorosa setting of Sances and in several other pieces, but the overall dynamic range is down at the quiet end of the scale. Two pieces in which Jaroussky is joined by the more conventionally operatic Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux are especially memorable, but the whole disc is a sterling example of how an almost completely neglected repertory can be brought to life anew by a performer who enters into it with the desire and talent to express its essence.