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Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674): "Oratorios"

Les Voix Baroques
Dir: Alexander Weimann

rec: Jan 6 - 8, 2009, Mirabel, Québec, Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2622 (© 2010) (67'12")

Ezechia; Jephte; Job (attr); Jonas

Maria Keohane, Suzie LeBlanc, Catherine Webster, soprano; Josée Lalonde, contralto; Matthew White, alto; Colin Balzer, Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Tyler Duncan, Sumner Thompson, baritone; Chloe Meyers, Chantal Remillard, violin; Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Emily Walhout, viola da gamba, lirone; Pierre-Yves Martel, violone; Sylvain Bergeron, lute, theorbo; Sara Lackie, harp; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord, organ

Giacomo Carissimi is generally considered the father of the oratorio. Strictly speaking this is not true, as the origins of the oratorio are in the liturgical plays of the Middle Ages, performed on the most important feasts, like Christmas and Easter. But it is true that Carissimi laid the foundation of the oratorio which developed into one of the main genres of vocal music in the Italian baroque. In the second half of the 17th century it would gradually move into the direction of the opera, both in regard to the music (recitatives and arias, more virtuosity in the solo parts) and to the text (Italian instead of Latin). In this form it disseminated through the continent.

Although Carissimi has become mainly known for his oratorios his output in this genre isn't that large. How many oratorios he has written is difficult to decide, since there is no clear definition of what exactly an oratorio is. One of its features is its dramatic character. But as some of Carissimi's motets are also quite dramatic and contain elements of dialogue they could also be considered oratorios. In New Grove the work-list mentions 11 oratorios. Job is not one of them as it is considered doubtful. The liner-notes of this recording keep silent about this.

The first oratorio on this disc is Jonas which tells part of the story in the biblical book Jonah. After a Sinfonia the Historicus gives an account of the story as it unfolds. This role is divided over four voices - soprano I and II, alto and bass. But a part of this role is assigned to the tutti, and that is one of the most dramatic passages of the oratorio. As Jonah tries to escape by boat from his task to preach to Nineveh a heavy thunderstorm springs up. This is vividly depicted by the choir: "clouds and storms, wave and whirlwinds, hailstones and thunderbolts, thunder and lightning hurled themselves against the ship with a terrible crash". In the liner-notes it is stated that Handel was influenced by Carissimi. One could think here of the way he depicted the plagues in Egypt in his oratorio Israel in Egypt. It is pretty well sung, but the dynamic contrasts could have been stronger. When the sailors find out that Jonah is responsible for the storm as God wants to punish him they throw him into the sea, where he is swallowed by a whale. From the belly of the whale he sings a lament - a moving solo for tenor in three sections each of which ends with the words "Be gentle, Lord, forgive, Lord, and have mercy". Colin Balzer sings it beautifully; the expressive power of this lament isn't fully explored, though. Jonah's prayers are answered, and the whale spits him out. He goes to Nineveh whose citizens repent and ask God for forgiveness. This is set as another lament, this time for the tutti.

The subject of the next oratorio, Jephtha, is better known, in particular thanks to Handel's famous oratorio. There is no instrumental introduction here; the Historicus - an alto - begins by telling that Jephtha is leading his people in the battle against the Ammonites. This role is then taken by the tutti and by two sopranos respectively which depict the battle: "And the trumpets flourished and the drums thundered and a battle was fought against Ammon". Here again the performance is dynamically too flat. The Historicus - then two sopranos and alto - describe the laments of the Ammonites as they have been beaten. This section is dominated by a descending chromatic figure. Jephtha's daughter (Filia) then leads the people in a song of praise for the victory, only to find her father in tears as he remembers his promise to God: he has to sacrifice the first person who meets him, and that happens to be his own daughter. She asks for permission to bewail her virginity with her friends. She sings a long lament, and here Carissimi makes use of a stylistic device of the time: voices answering the protagonist from the background as an echo. The role of Filia is given a fine account by Suzie LeBlanc, and she is quite impressive in the lament, even though she should have taken a little more rhythmic freedom. The oratorio ends with the Historicus - here the tutti again - joining Filia's lament: "Weep, ye children of Israel, weep O all ye maidens, and lament for Jephtha's only daughter with songs of mourning".

The third oratorio is Ezechia, about King Ezechias who is told by the prophet Isaiah he is going to die. The King then prays to God and asks to spare him because of the good things he has done. Again this is set in form of a lamento for tenor. It is remarkably similar to Jonah's prayer in the oratorio Jonas. It is also in three sections, which all end with the words "spare me, Lord, and take pity on me". On the word "miserere" Carissimi uses almost the same musical figure as in Jonas. Ezechias' prayers are answered, and he is given 15 more years. He then sings a song of praise, in which he is joined by the chorus: "We will all tell the works of the Lord and we will proclaim his marvels, to eternity". Colin Balzer sings the role of Ezechias, and the storyline is told by two angels, beautifully sung by Maria Keohane and Catherine Webster.

The last oratorio is Job, about a rich man whose faith in God is tested by the devil (Diabolus) who takes everything away: Job's children, his goods and his health. Job is guarded by an angel from God, and every time a disaster is announced by the devil Job answers: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord". The devil is then chased away by the angel, and he and Job sing together: "Blessed be the name of the Lord". This phrase is repeated throughout the oratorio on the same musical formula. The meanness of the devil is well portrayed by Tyler Duncan, and the role of the angel is given a good account by Maria Keohane. Matthew White is a bit too bland as Job.

I don't know why this oratorio is considered of doubtful authenticity. It is notable, though, that the treatment of the biblical story is quite different from that in the previous three oratorios. Whereas in those the text is pretty close to what is told in the Bible, here the story is treated with considerable freedom. In the book of Job no guardian angel appears, and the disasters which strike Job are not announced by the devil as in this oratorio. It seems to me this could be at least one reason why Carissimi's authorship could be questioned.

The oratorios by Carissimi have been recorded several times, and that is certainly the case with Jonas and Jephta. Ezechia and certainly Job are far less known. Because of that this disc is a worthwhile addition to the catalogue. The quality is quite good: all singers have nice voices and have a good feeling for the style of these oratorios. Their voices also blend nicely which is in particular important in the choruses. The ornamentation is rather modest, but technically immaculate. That said, the interpretations fall a little short on expression. These are no operas, but they are certainly theatrical, and that doesn't come off well enough. More dynamic contrast, more rhythmic freedom and sometimes faster tempi would have made this disc much better. That said, there is much to enjoy, and as it contains two lesser-known pieces it can be recommended.

The booklet contains liner notes in French and English as well as the lyrics with French and English translations.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Les Voix Baroques

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