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Giacomo Carissimi (1605 - 1674): "Dialogo del Gigante Golia - Oratorios"

Musica Fiata, La Capella Ducale
Dir: Roland Wilson
rec: March 20 - 22, 2003, Cologne, Studio Deutschlandfunk
CPO - 999 983-2 (78'10")

De Tempore Interfecto Sisarea; Dialogo del Gigante Goliab; Diluvium Universale - Dialogo del Noec; Regina Hesterd

[MF] Constanze Backes (Davidb, Hesterd), Gela Birckenstaedt, Monika Mauch (Amand, Deboraa), Rannveig Sif Sigurdardottir, soprano; Alessandro Carmignani, alto/tenor; Wilfried Jochens (Deusc), tenor; Harry van der Kamp (Assuerusd, Goliathb, Noec), bass
[LCD] Christine Moran, Annette Sichelschmidt, violin; Arno Paduch, Roland Wilson, cornett; Cas Gevers, Detlef Reimers, Peter Sommer, sackbut; Hartwig Groth, violone, lirone; Lee Santana, chitarrone; Christoph Anselm Noll, harpsichord, organ, regale

In recent years a number of recordings with music by Giacomo Carissimi have been released. Many of them contain the oratorios which have given the composer his fame in his own time and in modern times as well. Many recordings are available of his best-known oratorios, like Jephte, Ionas, Job. This disc brings four completely unknown oratorios, three of which have only recently been rediscovered by Roland Wilson.
The four compositions on this disc differ in length. The second and third are rather short, and there is no certainty that these have been written for the oratorio performances, but rather to be performed during church services. But it should be added that there never was a clear difference between motets, oratorios, historiae or dialogi, to mention some terms used for this kind of works.

The French viol player André Maugars visited Rome in 1639 and wrote an interesting report about an oratorio performance which gives some idea about how music was performed, and which is quoted in the booklet. The congregation of the Brothers of the Holy Cross, "composed of the most important gentlemen of Rome", attracted the best composers and music Italy had on offer. "This admirable and ravishing music is performed only on the Fridays of Lent from three until six o'clock." First a motet is sung, then the instruments play a sinfonia. "Afterwards the voices would sing a story from the Old Testament in the form of a spiritual play, such as that of Susanna, Judith and Holofernes, or David and Goliath. (...) Then one of the most celebrated preachers would give the exhortation. That finished, the singers performed the Gospel of the day, such as the story of the Samaritan woman, the woman of Cana, Lazarus, the Magdalen or the Passion of our Lord ...".

This report refers to the context in which oratorios like Carissimi's were performed. The fact that the performance took place during Lent means they were connected in one way or another to the Passion of Christ. Regina Hester, Dialogo del Gigante Golia and De Tempore Interfecto Sisare are all about the liberation of the Jews by God, through people like Esther, David and Deborah. In a way they all foreshadow Christ, who is going to liberate his people from their sins. Diluvium Universale is about the flood which destroys the earth and all its people, except Noah and his family and a number of animals. After the earth has dried up again, God promises never to destroy the earth again to punish it for its sins. The connection here is that God is going to punish his son Jesus instead for the sins of the people.

The context also explains why sometimes elements from a story as told in the Bible are left out. In Regina Hester, for instance, Mordecai, the uncle of Esther, who arouses Haman's anger, isn't mentioned at all. As the audiences knew the story there was no need to mention him. And one of the most dramatic elements in the story, Haman appealing to Esther for his life - which causes King Ahasuerus's outrage -, is also left out. As the main goal of the oratorio was to strengthen the faith of the audience this part of the story wasn't essential.

The text of the oratorio is a free adaptation - probably by Carissimi himself - of the biblical episodes. The actual story is told by a narrator, the Historicus, on passages from the Bible. This part could be sung by a solo voice in any range, or by a group of voices. In Regina Hester it is shared by two voices, here sung by the tenor Wilfried Jochens, who is a little too dramatic at the opening of the oratorio, and Alessandro Carmignani, who switches between his chest register and falsetto, which isn't always ideal.

The first part of Regina Hester contains a very vivid portrait of Haman, bragging about his position as the King's favourite, and expressing his hate against the Jewish people. Carissimi uses a run over two octaves up to a high c to depict Haman's arrogance. When Haman plans to destroy the Jews the words "dissipate" (destroy), "exterminate" (drive away) and "disperdite" (annihilate) are repeated several times to great dramatic effect, first by Haman, then by the Persian satraps. And after Ahasuerus has ordered Haman to be executed the tutti exclaim "pereat" (perish) a number of times during the King's solo.

The Dialogo del Gigante Golia starts with a sinfonia which is a kind of instrumental dialogue between wind and strings. The two instrumental groups could be interpreted as representing the respective characters, Goliath (cornetts and sackbuts) and David (violins). It is interesting here to quote again the witness report of André Maugars: "On the two sides of the church there are two more small stages where there were the most excellent instrumentalists". One can be sure wind and strings were sitting opposite to each other in the church during the performance of this work. In his solos Goliath is appropriately accompanied by a regale. We get excellent performances here, in particular from Harry van der Kamp, whose strong voice is perfectly suited to the role of Goliath. Constanze Backes is good as well as David, although the firmness of David's words "ego autem venia ad te in nomine Domini" (I come to you in the name of the Lord), expressing his faith in God, isn't fully expressed.

De Tempore Interfecto Sisare is hardly a dialogue, but rather a retrospect by the judge Deborah, who has led her people in the war against general Sisera of the Canaanites (Judges 4 and 5). When in the song of victory Deborah and the people refer to the events of the war, they are accompanied by cornetts and sackbuts on the passage "Venerunt reges et pugnaverunt, sonitus tubae auditus est, fragor et concussio armorum" (Kings came and fought, the sound of the trumpet was heard, the clanging and clashing of weapons). The piece comes to a powerful end with the words "sic pereant omnes inimici Domini" (thus may all the enemies of the Lord perish). Here again the word 'pereant' is repeated a number of times. The ensemble is very impressive in the tutti passages, but one may ask whether here a larger ensemble would make a greater impact. It is thought the number of performers in this kind of works varied from 6 to 20 singers and 3 to 15 instrumentalists.

The same can be said about the last oratorio, Diluvium Universale - Dialogo del Noe, which is about the flood which covered the earth in the days of Noah, and the new beginning after the earth had dried up (Genesis 7 to 9). In particular the very dramatic description of the rising of the water and the drowning of men and animals could take advantage from larger vocal and instrumental forces. In this oratorio Carissimi uses harmony to great effect. First the reaction of the people engulfed by the water is set to sharp dissonances, whereas the end of the flood is described in a peaceful and harmonious way.

This disc is a very interesting and musically enthralling addition to the catalogue. These oratorios which have never been recorded before, can only add to the reputation of Carissimi as one of the great masters of dramatic composition in music history.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

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Giacomo Carissimi

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