Notes and Editorial Reviews
A splendid, atmospheric and technically precise and accurate collection of four of Carissimi's lovely oratorios.
Jonas. Jephte. Ezechia. Job
Alexander Weimann, cond; Suzie LeBlanc, Maria Keohane, Catherine Webster (sop); Josée Lalonde (alt); Matthew White (ct); Lawrence Wilford, Colin Balzer (ten); Sumner Thompson, Tyler Duncan (bar); Les Voix Baroques (period instruments)
class="ARIAL12"> ATMA 2622 (67:42
Text and Translation)
The history of the oratorio would be nowhere without the seminal contributions to the form by Giacomo Carissimi. Though he didn’t invent either the term or the genre, he went on to write as many as 15 of these, mainly the
(in Latin) for the Santa Crocificio church in Rome and the
(in Italian), based upon Biblical subjects. He himself labeled these
, meaning that he considered them to be stories, taken from the Bible but skillfully altered to produce a cohesive (and unstaged) narrative more akin to a tale. The didactic lessons are thus subtly infused within the text, lasting just long enough for the audiences of the time not to lose interest. These were later received well outside of Rome, and the composer’s fame reached as far away as England. Indeed, it was a mark of his importance as a composer that Handel, that great borrower, used some of his music in his own oratorios over half a century later.
This disc presents a series of four of the works. In
, he relates that tale of a reluctant prophet swallowed by a whale. Here the narrators (entitled Historicus but with three different voices, as well as a chorus) weave the story, intermixing a visit by God, a ship’s crew and its master, and finally Jonah himself, who after all, has to pray from inside the sea mammal. At the end, there is an abrupt conversion by the Ninevites, a sort of
deus sine machina
. The choral narration of the storm features imitative entrances of the chorus almost like a madrigal (though more homophonic) as the waves of sound surge through and fro until the words “et facta est tempestas in mari” (and there was a tempest on the sea) with decisive chords. When Jonah does waken, a pair of basses (the Nautæ or sailors) initiate the casting of lots, whereby Jonah acknowledges his foreign origins and the chorus throws him overboard to a lyrical section of alternating homophony and brief imitation.
The second work, probably the most popular of the oratorios, is
, who vows to God to sacrifice the first person he meets if victory is granted. Now, those familiar with the Iliad and Idomeneo will recognize the conundrum; it’s his daughter. Carissimi creates a nice display, particularly in the narrator’s cry of “fugite, credite impii” with running florid lines, to be replaced by the sorrowful lament of the defeated Ammonites in minor-mode homophony. In
, the incident is even more trivial, though the two angel narrators make it a brief moment of faith with their interweaving lines, especially toward the end when the sundial goes back 10 steps. The final piece, the oratorio
, starts right out with a dialogue between the hero and the devil in a long recitative that lends the right sense of pathos to his plight. Only when the angel narrator interrupts with “te tuebor, te defendum” (I shall preserve you, defend you) does a bit of melody creep in. As the devil tells him of his misfortunes, the florid line returns, almost as if Satan is relishing the predicament he has caused. At the end, Job and the angel join in a duet, leaving the poor devil to answer their arioso in imitation until he vanishes altogether. It is an extremely effective means of impressing audiences of the day with short didactic Biblical anecdotes without becoming overburdened with liturgy.
All of these works have, of course, been recorded numerous times over the years. Many of these are well done, such as that by Currende on Accent or the Consortium Carissimi on Naxos to name two others. This performance of the Canadian early-instrument ensemble Les Voix Baroques is in my opinion the best of the bunch. They enunciate each text with a clarity that brings out the nuances of the words and music, suffering none of the heavy textures that a larger chorus brings to some of the others or the lugubrious tempos of, say, the New Corelli Orchestra on Hungaroton. They also blend well together, often emphasizing the sometimes pungent dissonances that give the oratorios their harmonic strength. The accompaniment is quite subtle, with entrances supporting the text and disappearing with nary a trace of cadential fervor, unlike the more larger-ensemble examples noted above. The addition of voices to the choir enriches the texture without padding it and one finds the performances so well integrated that the time passes quickly and pleasurably. Carissimi may be a bit of an acquired taste, given that things move along dramatically but not theatrically, but if you are a fan of 17th-century music, I recommend this disc highly. And I also hope that they put their efforts into completing the surviving other works, for this ensemble is about as close as I can imagine to a definitive recording.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
oratorio, probably dates from around 1640; this musical 'genre' developed relatively quickly from prayer meetings which had begun in Rome a century or so before. Oratorio eventually came to comprise sung music that illustrated a Biblical narrative. In ways parallel to the Protestant chorales, such oratorios had a didactic purpose in the service of the Counter Reformation. Specifically, the Catholic Church sought to use the emotional appeal of music to present an 'improving' message.
Giacomo Carissimi is perhaps the greatest exponent of this phase of the oratorio. He lived almost his entire working life (from 1629 to 1674) in Rome as maestro di cappella at the church of San Apollinare. This excellent CD from Les Voix Baroques gives us four idiomatically and carefully conceived and performed examples of Carissimi's compositions in the genre.
If for no other reasons than that his grasp of the oratorio is so great and so suave - he invariably internalised its every essence - and that his implementations are so full of beauty, Carissimi is a composer who deserves to be much better known … and not merely for historical reasons. Carissimi was greatly esteemed during his lifetime. But he declined positions in Venice (he was invited to succeed Monteverdi at San Marco), Vienna and Brussels; he was popular with monarchs, Popes and his musical compeers … Charpentier and Kerll were among his pupils; his influence on the likes of Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel is evident.
His music is warm, intense, and glows with perception and depth. It's also highly economical. Never an extra note or bar. What's more, his control of texture, harmony and rhythm are superb as is his ability to match musical invention to text. Listen to the way the tension of battle is conveyed in short,
staccato, phrases at the start of
Jephte [tr.8], for example. It is contrasted with the weeping (
Et ululantes) of the subdued; not sound painting but an intimate and appropriate marriage of the idea, the text and the music. It is conveyed by this ensemble with neither fuss nor overstatement.
Jonas [tr.s 1-7] too is level-headed but appropriately dramatic; in its measured yet far from impersonal unfolding of the story, you are left with a sense of Carissimi's (we don't know who wrote the texts for these works) conviction that Jonah would and was always destined to survive his ordeal.
Ezechia also concerns the rewards for faith in God. Here Isaiah miraculously controls the shadow cast by a sundial as proof that God recognises Ezechia’s adherence to His ways. Such a precise 'sign', overlaid with cosmic symbolism, requires a mixture of music that is rhetorical and dramatic as well as completely in control - suggesting the inevitability of power. Carissimi achieves this with technique in reserve. By the same token an oratorio on the subject of
Job needs to avoid spurious 'excitement' conveying what Job suffers. Rather, a more detached musical architecture that leaves us in no doubt why - when put to the test - belief will see us through. Only by having thoroughly understood this do these performers really communicate it to us.
The majority of the dozen and a half individual movements of these four works have slow and demonstrative tempi. Every word (the texts are in Latin) can be heard and understood. There is little polyphony. The style of singing is declamatory without being either overblown or distant. The accompaniment by eight string soloists with lute/theorbo and harp is supportive yet colourful. Something about the blend they achieve between a highly expressive and a highly deliberate delivery means that one does not tire at the slow and slowly-exposed almost recitative style employed to such effect throughout these works. This is due as much to Carissimi's expert matching of melody and timbre to the text as to anything else. It is an exercise in extending, examining and understanding every aspect of the story. Les Voix Baroques are completely in accord with every aspect of this consonance.
The acoustic for this 67 minutes of intimate and focused singing is clean and close. The booklet has the texts in Latin, French and English and a useful background essay. More about the works themselves would have been welcome.
That the archives containing Carissimi's works were sold by the pound as waste paper after his death needs no comment. The best we can hope for is more recordings as sensitive and persuasive as this one by these Canadian musicians. There are several current recordings of
Jephte, only a couple of
Ezechia but no other of
Job. This makes this a particularly desirable recording even were it not for the high quality of the performances. They are excellent so hesitating should not come into it.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Jephte by Giacomo Carissimi
Les Voix Baroques
Written: by 1650; Italy
Jonas by Giacomo Carissimi
Les Voix Baroques
Written: 17th Century; Italy
Jephte by Giacomo Carissimi
Les Voix Baroques
Written: by 1650; Italy
Job by Giacomo Carissimi
Les Voix Baroques
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
From the Father of Oratorio!!!! July 10, 2012
By Clifford H C. (Thompson, MB) See All My Reviews
"Giacomo Carissimi 1605-1674 would probably be much more famous if so much of his music was not destroyed. Many of manuscripts were sold as scrap paper when the monastery where he spent his life was closed. Listening to these small sacred lessons on Old Testament texts, one can only feel a sense of horrible loss for what the world has destroyed over time.
Each of these Oratorios is a small work of dramatic art all amazingly performed by Les Voix Baroques. The singing is absolutely flawless. Perfectly pronounced and projected. Truly some of the best ensemble singing I have ever heard. Fluid and organic without losing the words or meaning of the text.
In Jephte a chorus sings "Weep, ye children of Israel, weep O all ye maidens, and lament for Jephta's only daughter with songs of sadness." It is heart breaking the chorus sounding like tears falling down the face of Jephta's doomed daughter. A sadness so profound it will make you soul ache.
In Jonas, the storm scene produces an absolutely thrilling rhythmic storm scene. The effect is simple and effective at presenting the peril and the powerlessness of the people aboard the ship. These lessons do exactly what they were composed to do. I will never forget the story of Jephta or Jonas!