In recent years there
have been a number of recordings with
music by Giacomo Carissimi. Many of
these feature his oratorios which gave
the composer his fame in his own time
and in modern times also. There are
recordings of his best-known oratorios,
like Jephte, Ionas, Job.
This disc brings together
four completely unknown oratorios, three
of which have only recently been rediscovered
by Roland Wilson.
The four compositions
differ in length. The second and third
are rather short, and there is no certainty
that these were written for oratorio
performances, rather to be performed
during church services. But it should
be added that there never was a clear
difference between motets, oratorios,
'historiae' or 'dialogi', to mention
some terms used for this kind of work.
The French viol player
André Maugars visited Rome in
1639 and wrote an interesting report
about an oratorio performance which
gives some idea about how music was
performed, and which is quoted in the
booklet. The congregation of the Brothers
of the Holy Cross, "composed of the
most important gentlemen of Rome", attracted
the best composers and music Italy had
on offer. "This admirable and ravishing
music is performed only on the Fridays
of Lent from three until six o'clock."
First a motet is sung, then the instruments
play a sinfonia. "Afterwards the voices
would sing a story from the Old Testament
in the form of a spiritual play, such
as that of Susanna, Judith and Holofernes,
or David and Goliath. (...) Then one
of the most celebrated preachers would
give the exhortation. That finished,
the singers performed the Gospel of
the day, such as the story of the Samaritan
woman, the woman of Cana, Lazarus, the
Magdalen or the Passion of our Lord
This report refers
to the context in which oratorios like
Carissimi's were performed. The fact
that the performance took place during
Lent means that they were connected
in one way or another to the Passion
of Christ. The first three oratorios
on this disc are all about the liberation
of the Jews by God, through people like
Esther, David and Deborah. In a way
they all foreshadow Christ, who is to
liberate his people from their sins.
The fourth is about the flood which
destroys the earth and all its people,
except Noah and his family and a number
of animals. After the earth has dried
up again, God promises never to destroy
the earth again to punish it for its
sins. The connection here is that God
is going to punish his son Jesus instead
for the sins of the people.
The context also explains
why sometimes elements from a story
as told in the Bible are left out. In
Regina Hester, for instance, Mordecai,
the uncle of Esther, who arouses Haman's
anger, isn't mentioned at all. As the
audiences knew the story there was no
need to mention him. And one of the
most dramatic elements in the story,
Haman appealing to Esther for his life
- which causes King Ahasuerus's outrage
- is also left out. As the main goal
of the oratorio was to strengthen the
faith of the audience this part of the
story wasn't essential.
The text of the oratorio
is a free adaptation - probably by Carissimi
himself - of the biblical episodes.
The actual story is told by a narrator,
the 'Historicus', on passages from the
Bible. This part could be sung by a
solo voice in any range, or by a group
of voices. In Regina Hester it is shared
by two voices, here sung by the tenor
Wilfried Jochens, who is a little too
dramatic at the opening of the oratorio,
and Alessandro Carmignani, who switches
between his chest register and falsetto,
which isn't always ideal.
The first part of Regina
Hester contains a very vivid portrait
of Haman, bragging about his position
as the King's favourite, and expressing
his hatred of the Jewish people. Carissimi
uses a run over two octaves up to a
high c to depict Haman's arrogance.
When Haman plans to destroy the Jews
the words 'dissipate' (destroy), 'exterminate'
(drive away) and 'disperdite' (annihilate)
are repeated several times to great
dramatic effect, first by Haman, then
by the Persian satraps. And after Ahasuerus
has ordered Haman to be executed the
tutti exclaim 'pereat' (perish) a number
of times during the King's solo.
The Dialogo del Gigante
Golia starts with a sinfonia which is
a kind of instrumental dialogue between
wind and strings. The two instrumental
groups could be interpreted as representing
the respective characters, Goliath (cornets
and sackbuts) and David (violins). It
is interesting here to quote again the
firsthand report of André Maugars:
"On the two sides of the church there
are two more small stages where there
were the most excellent instrumentalists".
One can be sure wind and strings were
sitting opposite each other in the church.
In his solos Goliath is appropriately
accompanied by a regale. We get excellent
performances here, in particular from
Harry van der Kamp, whose strong voice
is perfectly suited to the role of Goliath.
Constanze Backes is good as well as
David, although the firmness of David's
words "ego autem venia ad te in nomine
Domini" (I come to you in the name of
the Lord), expressing his faith in God,
isn't fully caught.
The third oratorio
is hardly a dialogue, but rather a retrospect
by the judge Deborah, who has led her
people in the war against general Sisera
of the Canaanites (Judges 4 and 5).
When in the song of victory Deborah
and the people refer to the events of
the war, they are accompanied by cornets
and sackbuts on the passage "Venerunt
reges et pugnaverunt, sonitus tubae
auditus est, fragor et concussio armorum"
(Kings came and fought, the sound of
the trumpet was heard, the clanging
and clashing of weapons). The piece
comes to a powerful end with the words
"sic pereant omnes inimici Domini" (thus
may all the enemies of the Lord perish).
Here again the word 'pereant' is repeated
a number of times. The ensemble is very
impressive in the tutti passages, but
one may ask whether here a larger ensemble
would make a greater impact. It is thought
the number of performers in this kind
of works varied from 6 to 20 singers
and 3 to 15 instrumentalists.
The same can be said
about the last oratorio, Diluvium Universale
- Dialogo del Noe, which is about the
flood which covered the earth in the
days of Noah, and the new beginning
after the waters had receded (Genesis
7 to 9). In particular the very dramatic
description of the rising of the water
and the drowning of men and animals
could take advantage from larger vocal
and instrumental forces. In this oratorio
Carissimi uses harmony to great effect.
First the reaction of the people engulfed
by the water is set to sharp dissonances,
whereas the end of the flood is described
in a peaceful and harmonious way.
This disc is a very
interesting and musically enthralling
addition to the catalogue. These oratorios
which have never been recorded before,
can only add to the reputation of Carissimi
as one of the great masters of dramatic
composition in music history.
Johan van Veen