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Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605–1674)
Adeste Mortalis [9.00]
Oleum effusum est [24.55]
Sicut stella matutina [14.01]
Domine, Deus meus [16.05]
Robert Crowe (counter-tenor)
Michael Eberth (organ)
rec. 1, 3-5 October 2007, Jesuitenkirche MariaVerkundigung, Mindelheim
Experience Classicsonline

Carissimi’s motets don’t get that many outings on disc, which is surprising as they are rather striking pieces. Written in Rome at a time when opera was banned, Carissimi seems to have been trying to create similar virtuoso pieces for sacred use. He wrote for some of the finest singers of the day and these motets for solo soprano and continuo were undoubtedly performed by distinguished castrato soloists. Even during Carissimi’s day there were complaints from the church about the length and profusion of notes in these pieces. The longest piece on this disc, Oleum effusum est, is nearly 25 minutes duration.

They have been recorded on this new disc by Robert Crowe. Crowe is an American counter-tenor based in Germany who has a startlingly large range. Though he has transposed two of the motets down a tone, their range is such that it would make most counter-tenor’s quail as they regularly seem to go above the stave.

To put this in context, the highest note in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is the C above middle C; this is used extremely sparingly. In these motets Crowe spends much of the time in the range stretching a 6th above this C. Some of these motets go up to concert top G and possibly to concert top A. The range also goes down somewhat, so that Crowe uses his chest register as well. Not all castrati had wide ranges. Senesino who created many alto roles for Handel certainly did not. But at least one of Carissimi’s castratos must have had a striking range.

The best castratos brought to music a combination of power, accuracy, control and beauty of tone combined with sheer technical ability. What Crowe brings to these pieces is a remarkable voice, able to sing these pieces at pitch and a decent technique.

His voice is definitely that of a counter-tenor; though possessed of a strong vibrato, it certainly does not have the quality which you might mistake for a female contralto or mezzo-soprano. As such Crowe provides a very valid alternative to performing these motets with a female soprano. It is an alternative which, perhaps, gives us something of a hint of what the castratos sounded like.

Crowe’s voice is remarkable and, on occasions, lovely. But there are limitations.

A counter-tenor friend, when young, counted Rossini’s aria Di tanti palpiti (from Tancredi) in his repertoire but eventually dropped this sort of high singing. Not because the tessitura caused him problems but because he found that the sheer technical bravura required to produce these high notes meant that he had little leeway for control and for colour in the voice. This kept occurring to me as I listened to Crowe singing these arias; you are repeatedly struck by the remarkableness of his high register, but also by the limited variation of volume and tone quality. The most beautiful passages are where Crowe is singing in his middle range, not at the very top of his voice. The upper notes rarely sound easy and sometimes tend to stand out overly from the line.

This is the other serious problem with the disc. Crowe’s technique is respectable, but not dazzling. I am sure his performance in many other circumstances would be perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately his high notes tend to dominate, removing any possibility of evenness of tone and regularity of divisions in runs. I felt that in the longer pieces his voice also sounded as if it might be getting tired. His vibrato is also rather noticeable, something I found a little unsatisfactory in the passagework, but I am aware that this does not bother everyone.

Michael Eberth provides neat and discreet accompaniment. It would have been nice if they had been able to add a cello to the continuo to provide a little variety in tone colour.

The CD booklet includes an article about Carissimi and his motets, plus texts in Latin, English and German. The CD has only four tracks, one for each motet; I did wonder if it might have been helpful to subdivide the longer motets.

Crowe has produced his own editions of these pieces from early 17th and 18th century sources. He clearly feels strongly about the motets and gives a strikingly committed performance. I would like to be more enthusiastic about this disc but feel that Crowe’s remarkable voice is still looking for its ideal medium.

Robert Hugill


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