musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674): Oratorio di Daniele Profeta

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Feb 20 - 22, 2009, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
CPO - 777 489-2 (© 2017) (73'50")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Historia di Ezechia (attr); Job; Jonas; Oratorio di Daniela Profeta (attr)

Andrea Brown, Margaret Hunter, Monika Mauch, soprano; Beat Duddeck, alto; Mirko Ludwig, alto/tenor; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, Guillaume Olry, bass; Veronika Skuplik, Judith Steenbrink, violin; Hille Perl, viola da gamba; Margit Schultheiß, harp; Lee Santana, chitarrone; Detlef Bratschke, harpsichord, organ

Giacomo Carissimi is generally considered the father of the oratorio. This is not entirely correct, as the origins of the oratorio are in the liturgical plays of the Middle Ages, performed on the most important feasts, such as Christmas and Easter. But it is true that Carissimi was the first to compose oratorios, which strongly influenced the development of the genre. In the second half of the 17th century it would gradually move into the direction of the opera, both with 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 across 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 includes eleven oratorios, but some years ago Brilliant Classics reissued a complete recording of Carissimi's oratorios by the Ensemble Seicentonovecento, which comprises nine discs and 35 works. As none of Carissimi's oratorios have come down to us in autographs, it is impossible to tell what the exact titles are. In most recordings the first oratorio of this disc is simply called Jonas, whereas the track-list in the booklet has Historia Ionae.

Jonas is scored for eight voices in two choirs, two violins and basso continuo. It tells part of the story in the biblical book Jonah. After a sinfonia the Historicus - a part one could compare with the Evangelist in Bach's Passions - 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". It is known that George Frideric Handel was strongly influenced by Carissimi's oratorios. This particular episode may have inspired him in his depiction of the plagues in Egypt in his oratorio Israel in Egypt. 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 great fish. From the belly of the fish 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". Hans Jörg Mammel gives an excellent account of the role of Jonah, and the lament is just the right amount of urgency and expression. The choir of the sailors, praying to their gods, includes strong harmonic tension, which comes off perfectly thanks to the immaculate blending of the voices and the precise intonation.

Ezechia is one of the lesser-known oratorios; it is scored for five voices (SSATB), two violins and basso continuo. It is about King Ezechias who is told by the prophet Isaiah that he is going to die. Ezechias 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". Again this role is allocated to Mammel, and it is sung with the same intensity. The relatively small roles of God (Deus) and of Isaiah are performed by Harry van der Kamp and Mirko Ludwig respectively.

The oratorio Job is about a rich man, who has given his name to a book of the Old Testament. His 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. It is notable, that the treatment of the biblical story here is quite different from that in other 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. In the biblical account it is one of Job's servants who tells him about the disasters. Here these servants are impersonated by the devil himself.

In New Grove this oratorio is ranked among the doubtful and misattributed works, something which is not mentioned in the liner-notes. The same goes for the fourth work on this disc, which is different from the other oratorios as it is in the vernacular. The Oratorio di Daniele profeta is scored for six voices (SSSATB) and basso continuo. It is about the prophet Daniel, again a character who has given his name to a book from the Old Testament. He is one of the Jewish people who have been brought to Babel after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Here he rises to the highest ranks in the kingdom under Nebuchadnezzar. When his empire is conquered by the Persians during the reign of his son Belshazzar (this episode was taken by Handel as the subject of his oratorio Belshazzar), Daniel is promoted to the highest ranks in the empire. This is the cause of what happens: "[The] entire court burned with envy and resentment toward the excellent deeds of the new minister". Three satraps (roles for two sopranos and alto) hatch a plot: they know Daniel prays to God four times a day, and they urge the king "that he should, for a while, decree that no one must dare or attempt to ask for anything, neither from heaven nor from any man on earth, unless it be from the king himself." Daniel is caught praying to God, and the satraps then force Darius to punish him by throwing him into the lion's den. The biblical account ends with Daniel's being saved by God and the satraps' being punished instead, but here the story ends with a chorus of the satraps: "Kill him, silence the wanton tongue of this unholy spirit that harbours such foolish laws in his soul. Kill him, silence him!"

One can understand that there are some doubts about this piece's authenticity as it is so different from Carissimi's oratorios. That goes for the use of the vernacular, but also the subjective element in the part of the Testo (comparable with that of the Historicus in other oratorios): "O deplorable state of the powerful! You are doomed to be unable to exalt a righteous man without having him torn asunder by the wicked teeth of hundreds of evildoers!" Such moral exclamations are absent in the Latin oratorios. However, whether authentic or not, it is well worth being performed and recorded, as it is a quite dramatic work. Harry van der Kamp delivers an excellent account of the role of Darius, and the meanness of the three satraps comes off well in the performances of Andrea Brown, Margaret Hunter and Beat Duddeck. Monika Mauch sings the role of Daniel with the firmness it requires.

It is nice that this recording, which dates from 2009, has been released on disc in 2017 - better late than never. Jona and Job are available in several recordings, whereas the other two are little-known. That makes this disc a substantial addition to the discography. Overall the performances are very good, as I have already indicated. However, there are some issues which need to be mentioned. Firstly, sometimes the performances of the solo parts are a bit too restrained. Especially in Jona they could have been a little more theatrical. Secondly, the singers should have treated the rhythms with more freedom, more in the way of recitar cantando, the speech-like style of singing which was the ideal of the stile nuovo. Thirdly, some of the singers seem not to feel entirely comfortable with the tessitura of their part. Harry van der Kamp has a strong low register, but even he can barely reach the lowest notes. The middle voices are always a little problematic in Italian music of the 17th century. Mirko Ludwig is announced as an alto and a tenor, and his two registers are well integrated. However, I felt that the higher notes in his parts would come off better in chest voice, and that also goes for the parts taken by Beat Duddeck. I wonder if a high tenor, comparable with the French haute-contre, would have been a better option.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Weser-Renaissance Bremen

CD Reviews