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Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)
Historia Ionae (1649) [19:03]
Historia di Iob [9:47]
Oratorio di Daniele Profeta (1656) [31:39]
Historia di Ezechia [13:19]
WESER-RENAISSANCE Bremen/Manfred Cordes
rec. February 2009 at Sendesaal Radio Bremen, Germany
Sung in Italian (Daniele) and Latin
Full texts and translations included
CPO 777 489-2 [73:50]

Carissimi is often credited as one of the instigators of oratorio form. His most renowned example, Jepthe, has been recorded many times: indeed its very singular charms were revealed to me many years ago on an old Turnabout LP. Jepthe isn’t included on the present disc but three similar Historiae are included. They relate to the prophetic Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Jonah and to the sapiential book of Job. The Historia Ionae is often coupled with Jepthe; the Job and Ezekiel works are lesser known. The centrepiece here however is the half-hour Oratorio di Daniele Profeta.

The group WESER-RENAISSANCE may be an unfamiliar name outside Germany, but a brief glance down their roster reveals some distinguished members, most notably Hille Perl, who currently could be regarded as the doyenne of gambists, while the chitarrone player Lee Santana is similarly renowned (and happens to be Perl’s husband). Both featured on the tenor John Potter’s recent ECM release Secret History which I reviewed a couple of months back. The vocal personnel are less well-known to me; however they all sound superb, secure in their beautifully executed solo contributions while one of the joys of this excellent disc is the recorded balance which consistently reveals how well-matched they are in ensemble. It is something of a puzzle why this CPO disc, recorded back in 2009, has only now seen the light of day.

Only two of Carissimi’s ‘Italian’ (as opposed to Latin) oratorios have survived the last four centuries; one of these is the Oratorio di Daniele Profeta (The Oratorio of Daniel the Prophet). Veronika Greuel has contributed an extensive scholarly essay to this issue explaining how oratorio form came into being, and traces its roots right back to the perceived decline in the morality of the Catholic Church at the outset of the 16th century. This effectively led to Luther’s 95 Theses, and via the Council of Trent and the subsequent work of the Florentine priest Filippo Neri, the pontifical group known as the ‘Oratorians’ emerged. The oratorio form was thus anything but an overnight sensation, its eventual development rather tortuous. Carissimi was evidently one of its pioneers, and while the passage of time makes it difficult to date precisely any of his works, 1656 seems likely for Daniele as it was written for a private function involving Queen Christina of Sweden who had recently converted to Catholicism and is known to have been in Rome, where Carissimi was domiciled, at the time. It is relatively austere, mostly involving single voices involved in narrative or dialogue. These individuals are mostly accompanied by single instruments, Santana’s chittarone in the case of the narrator, organ in the case of Darius while Daniel’s part is occasionally shaded with the russet tones of Perl’s gamba in tandem with the chitarrone. I suppose this (and the Italian language which Carissimi uses most expressively here) perfectly illustrates the form’s operatic roots; while the relative severity of much of the music reflects this period where liturgy and dramaturgy tentatively overlap. All the individual voices sound wonderful and effortlessly convey the personalities and weaknesses of the main protagonists. Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor) is a humane narrator, while his diction and intonation project both lucidity and character. The rich colours of the chittarone are faithfully captured by the CPO engineers in the first part of the work- it is pretty omnipresent but never allowed to divert attention from the singers. As the work proceeds, the voices are heard together with increased frequency and the small instrumental ensemble opens out into something a little more effusive. This Daniele ends badly for the eponymous prophet – with his death at the hands of the lion. Carissimi excludes the benign intervention of the angel.

The two sopranos Monika Mauch and Andrea Brown duet beautifully throughout the following Historia di Ezechia, their voices delightfully matched. Another star in this performance is the superb bass Harry van der Kamp whose brief contributions reveal a wonderfully ripe, characterful voice. For this listener at least the greater compression and concentration of the shorter works provide a more satisfying and varied musical experience than the oratorio. Cordes marshalls his supremely gifted instrumental and vocal forces with taste and confidence throughout , making the most of the distinctiveness of each individual voice and thus maximising the dramatic contrasts inherent in each work. Moreover the combinations of instrumental textures and shades available to him consistently tease and delight the ear.

Histioria Ionae (Jonah) and Historia di Job (Job) open the disc and both are tastefully rendered here. Jonah in particular is a highlight, benefitting as it does from the full complement of eight voices and six instrumentalists, while at the other extreme Job illustrates one brief episode involving Satan (another tour-de-force from van der Kamp) Job (the high tenor of Mirko Ludwig) and the Angel (Monika Mauch); these characters are again matched with specific instrumental voices to heighten the contrasts of the characters; thus the angel is paired with the ethereal Positive Organ; Job with the plucked sounds of harp and chitarrone, while the growling harpsichord amplifies the goading Satan. Historia di Job is clearly a mini-masterpiece, one of Carissimi’s finest inspirations and deserves to be better-known. In this regard I suspect its ‘awkward’ length may have gravitated against it over time.

To summarise, while performances and recording on this CPO issue are of a very high order indeed, there are many excellent versions of Jonah; on the other hand Job, Ezekiel and the Oratorio di Daniele Profeta are much harder to come by. Potential Carissimi buffs, however, can immerse themselves in a 9CD (download) box of his oratorios from Brilliant Classics, in sympathetic performances from the Ensemble Seicentonovecento under Flavio Colusso. It features in this recent MWI round-up.

Richard Hanlon

 

 




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