Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)
Oratorios: Jonas [19:01]; Jephte [23:52]; Ezechia [14:30]; Job [10:19]
Les Voix Baroques/Alexander Weimann (Musical Director); Matthew White (Artistic Director)
rec. 6-8 January, 2009, Église Sant-Augustin, Mirabel (Québec), Canada. DDD
ATMA ACD2 2622 [67:42]
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.
Jonas [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.
Ezechia 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 and Jephte, only a couple of Ezechia 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 into it.
Mark Sealey