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Rossi: Giuseppe; Carissimi: Ezechia / Pfammatter

Rossi / Carissimi / Cappellantiqua / Pfammatter
Release Date: 08/30/2011 
Label:  Divox   Catalog #: 75239  
Composer:  Luigi RossiGiacomo Carissimi
Performer:  Elisabetta TisoNadia RagniMartin Barrera-OroMarkus Schikora,   ... 
Conductor:  Bernhard Pfammatter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cappellantiqua Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

ROSSI Giuseppe, figlio di Giacobbe. CARISSIMI Historia di Ezechia Bernhard Pfammatter, cond; Nadia Ragni, Elisabetta Tiso (sop); Martin Barrera-Oro (alt); Markus Schikora (ten); René Perler (bs); Cappellantiqua Ens DIVOX 75239 (59:46) Live: Bern 11/8/1998

Early Italian Baroque oratorio does not fall under my usual purview, but ever since I accidentally discovered a recording many years ago of Carissmi’s Read more style="font-style:italic">Jephte , I was so moved by the music’s profound poignancy that I became quite fascinated with this celebrated master of the Roman school. Giacomo Carissimi (1605–74) is one of the pioneers in transforming the chamber cantata, a type of instrumentally accompanied vocal work that grew out of the accompanied madrigals of the late Renaissance, into what we call oratorio. In 1637, Carissimi was ordained a priest, and though he received numerous lucrative offers from potential employers, including an invitation to succeed Monteverdi at St. Mark’s in Venice, he chose to remain in Rome and, as far as is known, he never set foot outside of Italy. Received opinion is that Jephte is Carissimi’s towering, consummate masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the notes to this album, printed directly on the inner cardboard flaps, are shamefully short and inadequate for a release of this importance; plus, no texts are provided, particularly inexcusable in the case of Rossi’s Giuseppe, figlio di Giacobbe, which is a long work with a very convoluted plot. No background whatsoever is provided on Carissimi’s Historia di Ezechia , unless you consider one sentence sufficiently informative telling us that it’s an “oratorio latino” (i.e., in Latin) as opposed to an “oratorio vulgare” (i.e., in Italian). Perhaps nothing more is known, including the work’s date of composition. According to a paper by Claudio Sartori, “Definitive studies of the works of Giacomo Carissimi have long been hampered by the absence of any listing of his complete works and the relevant source material.” But Sartori wrote that in 1975. I would think by now extensive enough research has been done to at least be able to approximate dates for the composer’s works. Yet apparently, the exact date of Jephte’s composition, presumptively Carissimi’s greatest work, isn’t known either. Various sources give it as sometime between 1648 and 1650. Not having any real expertise in this musical period and genre, I wouldn’t even begin to speculate as to whether Historia di Ezechia pre- or postdates Jephte.

The story doesn’t seem like a particularly promising one for an oratorio. Hezekiah was the 14th King of Judah, who reigned from c.715 to 686 BC. He seems to have been a decent ruler who, upon his ascent to the throne, attempted to restore the kingdom’s better days before it had been sacked by the Assyrians in 720 BC. Hezekiah is portrayed by Biblical sources as a “great and good king,” one who abolished idolatry and reinstated Jewish religious practices. During his 29-year reign, the Judean kingdom flourished, but peace with its neighbors then, as now, was a chimera. Hezekiah faced repeated incursions and invasions, mainly by the Assyrians.

You would think that Carissimi would choose for his oratorio a page from the life of Hezekiah that involved his beating back Sennacherib’s advancing forces. The clash of arms and the spilling of blood are bound to make for good oratorio drama. But no, Carissimi chooses instead a chapter from the end of Hezekiah’s life that eschews spectacle for spirituality. One of the most notable of the Israel- and Judea-period prophets, Isaiah (739–681 BC), who prophesied in the days of Hezekiah, comes to the King with a message from God: “It’s your time; prepare to die.” “Oh no,” says Hezekiah, “I’m not ready; my work dispatching the Assyrians is not done.” So, Hezekiah, with Isaiah at his side, prays fervently for a temporary reprieve. God relents and to show His mercy performs the miracle of reversing the shadow that fell upon the sundial, which is interpreted to mean that the sun went backwards in its course from west to east, thereby reversing time and extending Hezekiah’s life.

This is the episode in the story of Hezekiah that inspired Carissimi and provided him with the text for his 15-minute Historia di Ezechia . If you’re familiar with Jephte , you’ll find the style of the composer’s Hezekiah oratorio quite consistent with his more famous work. It consists of long stretches of emotionally heightened accompanied recitative in alternation with commenting and commiserating choruses. You will wait in vain, however, for anything as gripping and heartrending as the concluding chorus of Jephte . But then in fairness to Carissimi, it has to be said that the endings of the two stories are quite different. Hezekiah’s life is spared, at least temporarily; but in what is perhaps the most tragic of all Biblical stories—tragic because it was so unnecessary—the life of Jephthah’s daughter is not. It’s a terrible object lesson in the consequences of taking an oath (or in our current political climate, of signing a pledge) and then refusing to yield no matter what. Jephtha ends up sacrificing his own daughter because of a foolhardy oath no one asked or expected him to take but that he believes he’s sworn to keep. Biblical scholars have scratched their heads over how differently this story ends compared to the account of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac, a test of faith with a much happier ending, except of course for the ram that’s slaughtered instead.

Luigi Rossi wrote only two operas, one of which was a setting of Orfeo , composed around 1646, and possibly no more than two oratorios, Giuseppe, figlio di Giacobbe heard here, and the better-known Per La Settimana Santa . His crowning achievement, however, is said to be found in his many chamber cantatas, critically regarded as some of the finest of the 17th century. It’s questionable, in fact, as to whether the work recorded here is actually an oratorio or two chamber cantatas united under the umbrella of a single title, for Giuseppe is in two parts, or acts, if you will, designated “Prima Cantata” and “Seconda Cantata.” I suppose you could say much the same thing about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio , which is essentially six cantatas that, taken together, present the Gospel Christmas narrative.

Rossi’s oratorio recounts the Biblical tableau of Joseph and his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. By the time we join the story, Joseph is a viceroy in Egypt, one of the Pharaoh’s most trusted advisors, and living the life of luxury. The brothers arrive asking for aid in alleviating the famine in Israel, and not recognizing Joseph as their brother, they tell him that they have another younger brother, Benjamin, whom they’d left at home with their father, Jacob. Oops, big mistake! A complex psychological game now ensues in which Joseph pretends not to recognize his brothers, imprisons them on trumped-up grounds of their being spies, and then releases them but takes one of them, Simeon, hostage, as a guarantee that the brothers will return home to fetch Benjamin and bring him back with them to Egypt.

The entire story, in modern terms, is one of a major guilt trip and the karmic retribution that comes to pass when families betray their own. This particular chapter seems to have a happy ending. All of the brothers, along with the father, are reunited in Egypt where they choose to settle and thrive. But this is also the beginning of the next chapter, a very sad one, in which the descendants of Joseph find themselves enslaved in Egypt for the next 400-plus years.

Rossi’s oratorio is a major work, its two parts lasting a combined total of nearly 45 minutes. In style, it’s very similar to the Carissimi, but with more characters and a labyrinthine plot that borders on the operatic there’s more opportunity for the solo voices to engage in conversational exchanges involving multiple singers simultaneously. This gives the impression of a work more technically advanced than Carissimi’s Historia.

If your ears are attuned to the early Italian Baroque vocal works and operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli, you will find much to enjoy in these two oratorios. I will repeat that the unhelpful notes and the complete absence of texts are major drawbacks that give this album the appearance of having been done on the cheap. But the singers and players in these live performances are professional and polished, and the recording itself is excellent.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Giuseppe, figlio di Giacobbe by Luigi Rossi
Performer:  Elisabetta Tiso (Soprano), Nadia Ragni (Soprano), Martin Barrera-Oro (Countertenor),
Markus Schikora (Tenor), Rene Perler (Bass)
Conductor:  Bernhard Pfammatter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cappellantiqua Ensemble
Period: Baroque 
Written: 17th Century; Italy 
Ezechia by Giacomo Carissimi
Performer:  Elisabetta Tiso (Soprano), Nadia Ragni (Soprano), Martin Barrera-Oro (Countertenor),
Markus Schikora (Tenor), Rene Perler (Bass)
Conductor:  Bernhard Pfammatter
Period: Baroque 
Written: 17th Century; Italy 

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