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Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)
Eight Motets
Audivi vocem [8:18]
Christus factus est [4:32]
Usquequo peccatores [20:21]
Dixit Dominus [5:52]
Silentium tenebant [6:05]
Sustinuimus in pacem [6:06]
Timete Dominum [6:07]
Hodie salvator mundi [8:18]
Consortium Carissimi/Garrick Comeaux
rec. 19 - 24 July 2015, Church of Saint Therese, Deephaven, Minnetonaka, USA. DDD
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.573258 [65:38]

In the mid-17th century Giacomo Carissimi was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe. The fact that he attracted pupils from various countries - among them Marc-Antoine Charpentier - and that copies of his compositions have been found in archives and libraries across Europe is telling. The presence of these copies is a matter of good fortune, because none of Carissimi's compositions have come down to us in autograph manuscripts.

His fame was especially founded on his oratorios which had a lasting influence on the development of this genre. In comparison his motets have received less attention. However, there is no watershed between the two genres. Some pieces are called 'motet' in one source, and 'oratorio' in another. The present disc includes one piece which has all the features of an oratorio. Unlike oratorios such as Jephte and Jonas, the motet Usquequo peccatores is not about a series of events. Its dramatic character stems from the fact that Carissimi divided the performing forces into three groups of different scorings: three sopranos, alto/tenor/bass and the conventional four voices (SATB) respectively. He also allocated them different roles. "Choir II are the martyrs under the altar, indicated sotto l’altare in the manuscript. Choir I are presumably the saints in heaven and Choir III comments on the dramatic dialogue that ensues", Garrick Comeaux writes in his liner-notes. His choice of words suggests that at least the role of the first choir is not specified by the composer. The fact that the martyrs are under the altar also seems to indicate that in Carissimi's time the singers were allocated to various spaces in the venue where the performance took place. Comeaux doesn't give any details about the recording, but it seems to me that he at least tried to make some differences between the three groups here. These could have been a little larger.

The piece opens with the saints singing: "How long, how long will sinners triumph?" In the first section a solo tenor sings the words of God, spoken to Cain after he had slain his brother Abel (as written in Genesis): "The voice of your brother's blood cries out to you from the earth". This section ends with the saints urging for vengeance: "Avenge, O Lord, the blood of the saints which is shed". This is repeated at the end of the second section which opens with a bass acting as vox Dei (the voice of God): "To me belongs vengeance, and I will make them pay". Whereas this piece opened with a quotation from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the second half refers to its last book, Revelation. Here the wicked (peccatores) are quoted as screaming: "O mountains and valleys, fall on us". One of the sections opens with the phrase: "Let the wicked perish before the face of God". As so often in oratorios by Carissimi single words are repeated many times, often in a percussionistic way. Here it is "pereant" (perish). In the closing sections it is the joy over justice which is in the centre. Here words like "gaudete" (rejoice) and "jubilate" (shout with joy) are repeated a number of times, and it is emphasized that the justice is "for ever" (in aeternum).

This is not the only polychoral piece: Christus factus est and Dixit Dominus are for two choirs. Let us not forget that Rome had its own polychoral tradition. It is notable that in the first of these two motets the two choirs have a somewhat different scoring: the second is in four parts (SATB), the first in five with a split soprano part. In the first half Carissimi makes use of harmony for expressive reasons: "Christ became obedient for us unto death, even by death from the cross". Dixit Dominus reminds us that the stile antico of the 16th century was still very much alive. In its strict polyphony it is at the other end of the spectrum in Carissimi's œuvre whereas the oratorios reflect the modern monodic style. However, the most dramatic verses in this psalm are not lost on him.

Silentium tenebant is also an interesting piece which was apparently written for Christmastide. The silence which the opening phrase refers to is the silence which precedes the intervention of the angel, proclaiming the birth of Christ. The second half has the traits of a lullaby: "Little Lad's pupils, sleep, little darlings, sleep, tender ones". It is one of the many pieces where Carissimi makes use of non-biblical or extra-liturgical texts. For most of his life he was in the service of the Collegio Germanico and collaborated with the Roman Oratories whose gatherings included a sermon, surrounded by music. In both cases Carissimi was not forced to confine himself to liturgical music. It seems likely that a piece like Usquequo peccatores was also written for such gatherings.

As the name of the Consortium Carissimi indicates, its main concern is the performance and recording of the oeuvre of Carissimi. That cannot be appreciated enough, because apart from a handful of his oratorios his œuvre is little known. From that angle this disc deserves a wholehearted welcome. There is certainly much to enjoy here and the performances are respectable. However, there are also considerable shortcomings. More than ten years ago I reviewed a disc with two of Carissimi's best-known oratorios, mentioned above (review). I was not impressed by the performances, neither were Robert Hugill (review) and Kevin Sutton (review). Things have certainly changed for the better, but more recently I was not entirely happy with this ensemble's recording of music by Carissimi's contemporary Bonifazio Graziani (review). It is not fundamentally different here. Some singers use too much vibrato, for instance one of the sopranos at the opening of the very first item, Audivi vocem. In general I am not that impressed about the quality of the voices. None of them is really first class. The main shortcoming is that the performances are not very expressive. Dynamically they are too flat, and that goes both for the singers and the strings. Carissimi's music is more exciting than these performances suggest. Overall the tutti sections come off best, whereas the solo sections leave something to be desired.

From the angle of repertoire this disc has to be welcomed, but the interpretations give only a glimpse of what Carissimi's music is about.

Johan van Veen



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