The term, 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.
[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.
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 Jonas
, only a couple of
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