An extraordinary enterprise … As an experience of the sounds and styles of French organ culture this boxed set, it seems to me, is indispensable … the body of music is mostly, here, not created but simply made alive by the apt choice of instruments … it is a resource to which to return with delight.
In this new release, Vincent Dumestre’s Le Poème Harmonique once again immerses us in the France of the second half of the 16th century, which witnessed the emergence of new centres of artistic activity. These ‘bourgeois’ societies were initiated by patron princes concerned with building their prestige through the arts and letters just as much as by arms. At the same time, refined circles held by cultivated women enabled them to rub shoulders with the leading poets of the time, as well as musicians sensitive to humanist research, all profiting from a context propitious to the invention of new artistic forms and practices.
In the Baroque period, there really was no such thing as an "orchestra" as we understand the term today. There were large collections of singers and players brought together for special occasions, but aside from those, an "orchestral" work was anything that required more than five or six players. Bach's harpsichord concertos, for example, can be performed by a couple of dozen string players plus the soloist, or with an accompaniment of one person per part, which is more or less what we get here. These small forces permit an unprecedented transparency of sound and sharpness of attack, even if some weight and body of tone necessarily get sacrificed. It's a perfectly legitimate way to play the music, however, and you won't find it better done than here.