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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674)
Historia di Jepthe [21.38]
Dai piu riposte abissi [12.09]
Historia Jonae [19.30]
Consortium Carissimi/Vittorio Zanon
rec. Museo Civico (ex-church of Santa Lucia), Marino, Italy, 25Ė28 Nov 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557390 [55.16]


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Carissimiís oratorios were a development of the laudi sacri which composers such as Palestrina and Annimuccia wrote for St. Philip Neriís meetings held in his oratorio (or place of prayer). Carissimi developed the musical form so that it became a full drama, miniature in scale but full of dramatic force. We have little concrete information about his activities at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifissio for which the oratorios were probably written. The CD booklet quotes a traveller in 1650 describing Ďmusic so sweet and harmoniousí, which was performed by some twenty voices, organs, lute, viola and two violins.

Nowadays Carissimiís oratorios have come to be performed by chamber choirs accompanied by large-scale forces; this approach was taken by John Eliot Gardiner on his 1990 recording of Jephte and Jonas. An alternative approach is to use smaller scale, madrigalian ensembles, which probably more closely reflect the conditions of first performance. This approach brings out the chamber textures and, with only one or two voices to a part in the full choral sections, helps knit the solo passages to the tutti sections.

It is this approach which is taken by the Consortium Carissimi on their new disc of oratorios. The Consortium uses a choir of thirteen with two violins, viola da gamba, violone, archlute, theorbo, organ and harpsichord. The solos are performed by members of the choral group. Parts are allocated widely, with some nine singers taking solo parts in Jephte.

The group was founded in 1996 and is dedicated to exploring Carissimiís vast output. But here, on their first recording for Naxos, they are playing relatively safe by performing two of his best know works, Jephte and Jonae.

Jephte is based on the biblical text from Judges, but the oratorio uses a considerably expanded text. Besides paraphrasing the biblical narrative the anonymous librettist has written entirely new texts for the dramatic moments. The narrator or Historicus is sung predominantly by tenor Fabio Furnari and he creates a fine, dramatic narrative whilst keeping to the chamber-like textures of the piece. At times, though, Carissimi passes the storyline to other singers. Jephtaís son is played by Nadia Caristi, who displays a fine, focused soprano voice.

In the ensemble passages, the singers make a wonderfully flexible, supple sound; listening to any of the cori in Jephte is a pleasure. But, as in many cases where the choral singers perform solos as well, not all of the soloists are quite up to the demands of the solo lines. All perform creditably, but I found myself noticing small faults rather than appreciating the expressive nature of the music.

In structure, Jonae is very similar to Jephte and similar strictures apply to the performance. One of the highlights of the disc is the chorus Et proeliabantur venti which uses two choirs vividly to describe the storm which threatens Jonahís ship.

Between the two oratorios, Consortium Carissimi perform the serenade Dai piu riposte abissi (From the most hidden abysses). In this case they transpose the solo parts from two sopranos and bass to two tenors and bass; perhaps to our advantage as the tenor Fabio Furnari is one of the strongest soloists on the disc.

The booklet includes the full Latin and English texts, printed in parallel; something that you cannot take for granted nowadays in budget-priced discs. However, the disc is not a long one and there would have been plenty of room to include a further Carissimi work.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this disc. Much work and scholarship has gone into it and the performances are never less than creditable, but somehow it just misses the mark. However recordings of Carissimiís oratorios are not thick on the ground and this disc would still make an admirable introduction.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Kevin Sutton

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