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.
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.