La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
Harmonia Mundi HMM902279

Back in the 1980s, Harmonia Mundi France established their credentials as a label for connoisseurs with pioneering recordings by the likes of Philippe Herreweghe and William Christie that set a new standard for the performance of French Baroque vocal music with specialist voices. Christie’s series of Charpentier was a revelation and almost made the composer a household name – well, for sophisticated music-loving households that is. By the time he recorded this lovely chamber opera in 1995 he had jumped ship to major label Erato and was peppering his casts with singers with grander voices who would soon become stars on the general opera stage – to the dismay of some purists.

Two decades on we have a new generation of performers who grew up listening to those groundbreaking recordings and it is fascinating to hear how they have assimilated the style and idiom. Sébastien Daucé and his group are amongst the finest of the latest exponents; their mighty Le Concert Royal de la Nuit took out Limelight’s Opera Recording of the Year last year and they have followed up with this delightful “bonne bouche”. Daucé’s direction is more fluid than Christie’s with the swing of the notes inégales more integrated with the line – the metric changes are smoother and the rhythms dance along naturally. Christie’s starry cast sounds superb but rather too grand for such a small scale work with a nine-piece band, yet Daucé’s specialists hold their own vocally against 12 forthright players, and the more intimate approach is so focused as to carry the drama just as vividly.

Daucé’s quartet of sopranos are every bit as lovely as Christie’s dream-team while blending exquisitely in the choruses. It would be difficult to imagine a finer haute-contre Orphée than Paul Agnew but Robert Getchell trumps him (at a higher pitch!); there is more reed in the voice, but it is a lovely sweet sound even on the highest notes. There is an abundance of breathtaking beauty to be heard here. Another state of the art release.