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"Passion and Lament - Choral Masterworks of the 17th Century"

The Bach Sinfonia & Sinfonia Voci
Dir: Daniel Abraham

rec: May 18 - 21, 2008, Washington D.C., Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes
Dorian - DSL-90913 (© 2009) (55'53")

Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1664-1704): Stabat mater; Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674): Historia di Jephtea; Salamone ROSSI (c1570-c1628): Eftach na sefatai a 7; Elohim, hashivenu a 4; Odekha ki 'anitani a 6; Shir hamma'alot. Ashrei kol yere Adonai a 3; Shir hamma'alot. Ashrei kol yere Adonai a 5; Shir hamma'alot. Beshuv Adonai a 5

(Sources: [1] Salamone Rossi, Hashirim asher lish'lomo, 1623)

[solia] Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano; Barbara Hollinshead, contralto; Tony Boutté, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone
Douglas Poplin, cello; Robbie Link, great bass viol; William Simms, theorbo, guitar; Michelle Roy, harpsichord, organ

At first sight it isn't quite clear what this disc is about. The title "Passion and Lament" doesn't tell tmuch, nor does the subtitle "Choral Masterworks of the 17th Century". The word "masterworks" suggests that compositions are performed which are generally acknowledged as masterpieces. In fact, only Carissimi's oratorio belongs to that category. Biber's Stabat mater is performed here for the first time, and the excerpts from Rossi's collection Hashirim asher lish'lomo do not figure among the pieces which are considered masterworks. In both cases that label could be considered a bit exaggerated. That doesn't imply that they are of mediocre quality, though.

"Passion and Lament" is referring only to Biber and Carissimi. Rossi's collection contains psalms which haven't anything to do with passion or lament. Salamone (or Salomone) Rossi is one of the most interesting composers of the early 17th century. As a Jew he takes a special position in the history of music. Like others he composed Italian madrigals and instrumental pieces. His Jewish ancestry is reflected by the collection Hashirim asher lish'lomo, 'The Songs of Solomon'. It contains mostly Psalms on a Hebrew text, for the composition of which he took the advise of the Venetian rabbi Leon Modena. A special problem he had to deal with is that Hebrew runs from right to left, whereas a score is read from left to right. The music was meant for both the liturgy in the synagogue and for private celebrations. It caused some controversy as the use of art music in liturgy wasn't universally accepted among Jews.

This disc includes five Psalm settings from this collection: not only complete Psalms, but sometimes just a number of verses. And none of them can be categorized as "passion" or "lament". Shir hamma'alot. Ashrei kol yere Adonai (Psalm 128) is performed in two different versions, for 3 and 5 voices respectively. It begins with the words: "Blessed everyone who fears the Lord". Odekha ki 'anitani (Psalm 118, vs 21-24) says: "I will thank you, for you have answered me". It is a laudatory Psalm, whereas Shir hamma'alot. Beshuv Adonai (Psalm 126) is about redemption: "When led by the Lord to return to Zion, we were like dreamers". Elohim, hashivenu (Psalm 80, vs 4,8,20) is a plea for salvation: "God, restore us; brighten your face and we shall be saved". In addition a non-biblical text, Eftach na sefatai, is sung, a so-called piyyut: "Let me open my lips and respond in joyous song".

These pieces are syllabic, but some words are singled out through melismas, for instance the word "walking" (haholekh) in Psalm 128. It is just one example of Rossi making use of the expressive means of his time. That is also the case in Biber's setting of the Stabat mater, which is written in the stile antico. But that doesn't mean it is a kind of imitation of the music which was written about a century before. The text expression is up to date, as we also hear in other sacred compositions of this time, for instance those of Alessandro Scarlatti. In the source which was used for this recording only four verses are set polyphonically, and from another source two further verses have been added, which are set to existing music (so-called contrafacta). One wonders how this piece was performed in Biber's days. Were the other verses sung in plainchant? On this disc only the six polyphonic parts are performed, which gives the impression of this work being a torso.

The booklet contains lengthy programme notes which explain how exactly the composers have set the various texts. That is also the case with Carissimi's Historia di Jephte, an oratorio which was in his time and is still considered a true masterpiece. It dates from around 1650, and almost a century later Handel borrowed the final chorus for his oratorio Samson (1743). It is here that we hear the modern Italian style in its full glory. Carissimi underlines the contrasting episodes by using three different styles which Monteverdi laid out. The stile concitato is used to describe the battle of Jephta, the stile molle for the lamenting passages, and the stile moderato to express joy. It is disappointing that in general the dramatic character of this oratorio is blunted and few of the contrasts are realised in the performance. The tempi are often too slow, for instance the chorus 'Cantemus omnes Domino'. In the solo sections, for the Historicus, Jephte and Filia, there is too little declamation. The ideal of recitar cantando - speechlike singing - which was formulated by Giulio Caccini but still in vogue in Carissimi's time, is certainly not achieved here. There is too much legato singing, and some of the soloists - in particular Tony Boutté who sings the role of Jephte - use too much vibrato. One of the parts is sung by Barbara Hollinshead, but it is a bit too low for her tessitura. A high tenor - what in France was called the 'hautecontre' - would have been a better choice. The role of Filia - Jephtha's daughter - comes off best, beautifully sung by Jennifer Ellis Kampani.

The performance of Biber's Stabat mater is alright, but probably not fully exploring the depth of this setting. Rossi's Psalms are by far the best part of this disc. But as a whole this recording doesn't quite deliver what it promises.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

The Bach Sinfonia

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