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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER, Giacomo CARISSIMI: "Sacrifices"

La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates

rec: Oct 2012, Saxmundham (Suffolk), Snape Maltings; Jan 2014, London, St John's Smith Square
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807588 (© 2014) (67'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Carissimi
Score Charpentier, Le Reniement de Saint Pierre

Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674): Jephte; Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Le Reniement de Saint Pierre (H 424); Sacrificium Abrahae (H 402); Sébastien DE BROSSARD (1655-1730): Sonate en trio in D (SDB. 221); Symphonie pour le Graduel in D (SDB. 229); Symphonie pour le Graduel in g minor (SDB. 228)

Grace Davidson, Alice Gribbin, Sophie Junker, Mhairi Lawson, soprano; Esther Brazil, Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Auchincloss, Thomas Herford, Robert Murray, Nicholas Scott, Simon Wall, tenor; James Arthur, Jonathan McGovern, baritone; Timothy Dickinson, bass
Bojan Cicic, Sabine Stoffer, violin; Jonathan Rees, viola da gamba, cello; Timothy Amherst, violone; Alex McCartney, theorbo, guitar; Joseph McHardy, harpsichord, organ

Marc-Antoine Charpertier takes a unique position in French music history. He was strongly attracted to and influenced by the Italian style in a time that this was not really acceptable. It was only after the turn of the century that composers had the courage to openly confess their interest in the Italian style. Charpentier also wrote music in a genre which was not known in France: the oratorio. His example was not copied whereas in Italy this became one of the most important genres in the first half of the 18th century.

Although the oratorio has its roots in the medieval liturgical play, Giacomo Carissimi laid the foundation of the oratorio as it would develop during the late 17th and the 18th centuries. He was in the service of the Jesuit Collegio Germanico from 1629 until his death, and his sacred works were performed at the nearby church Sant'Apollinare. For the Jesuits the oratorio was an important instrument to bring across its ideals, especially those of the Counter Reformation. Carissimi's reputation was such that he attracted pupils from across Europe, and these were responsible for the dissemination of his music. Whether Charpentier was his formal pupil is not known for sure, but there can be little doubt that he was strongly influenced by the Italian master. According to his contemporary Sébastien de Brossard, who put together a music encyclopedia and was very well-informed about musical developments in his time, Charpentier had several pieces by Carissimi, among them some oratorios, in his baggage when he returned to France.

Like Carissimi Charpentier was closely connected to Jesuit circles. In the 1680s he became maître de musique of the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St Louis. Le Cerf de Viéville, an author on music, called it "the church of the opera" which suggests that Charpentier's oratorios were performed here. At the same time he composed his sacred drama David et Jonathas which was performed at the Jesuit Collège de Louis-le-Grand. In the genre of the oratorio he could explore his dramatic talent which he could not use for the composition of operas as the Opéra was completely dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The oratorios performed here are quite different from the those of the 18th century. The latter often had the character of a sacred opera, with many often virtuosic arias allocated to a number of protagonists. The oratorios by Carissimi and Charpentier are much shorter, and are basically ensemble pieces. That comes especially to the fore in the role of the narrator, usually called Historicus, and comparable to the Evangelist in Bach's Passions. That role can be scored in various ways within one oratorio, sometimes for a single voice of any range, but often for a vocal ensemble. Le Reniement de St Pierre opens with the Historicus telling about Jesus and his disciples having shared the Last Supper. This is sung by five voices, whereas later on this role is given to a bass. In this piece about Peter's denial of Christ the disciples swore that they would not leave him when he was going to be arrested. The chorus of five independent voices depicts the disciples speaking at the same time. The piece ends with Peter remembering that Jesus told him that he would deny him thrice before the cock would crow and "he went out, and wept bitterly". This is expressed in a chorus with strong dissonants.

The second oratorio by Charpentier is different. Sacrificium Abrahae is about Abraham who is asked by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. It opens with the Historicus who is sung by a solo voice this time, but later again by a five-part ensemble. The dialogue between father and son is not the most dramatic part of the piece, even though Abraham expresses his emotions with the words "Hei mihi, fili dilecte" (Woe is me, my dear son). It is rather the episode when an angel turns up and tells Abraham that God has seen his willingness to obey his commandments. Abraham can sacrifice a ram instead. The oratorio ends with a choir expressing the joy of the outcome: "Blessed are they who fear the Lord".

The last piece is Jephte, Carissimi's most famous oratorio. A subject like this naturally appeals to a composer of dramatic talent, such as Carissimi and in the next century Handel. Carissimi makes use of the stile concitato in the description of Jephtha's battle with the Ammonites. When Jephtha returns home he is greeted by his daughter, leading the jubilations of the people. It is only short-lived, as he has to tell her about his vow to God. All of a sudden the music shifts from major to minor. In Jephtha's daughter's lament of her fate - "Plorate colles, dolete montes" - Carissimi uses another popular phenomenon in Italian dramatic music of the early baroque: the echo. Then the chorus joins her: "Plorate, filii Israel, plorate, omnes virgines". The theorist Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) expressed his great admiration for the closing chorus: Carissimi "composes with such skill that you would swear you could hear their sobbings and lamentations".

The two oratorios by Charpentier are preceded by instrumental pieces by Sébastien de Brossard, another admirer of the Italian style. They are used here as a kind of preludes to the oratorios which have to instrumental introduction. In addition we hear a trio sonata which does not follow the Corellian model. It is in five movements; only two have a character indication, and these have both French titles: rondeau and rigaudon.

Bringing together oratorios by Carissimi and Charpentier makes for a highly interesting programme. Unfortunately the performances are largely disappointing. I have already written that these oratorios are ensemble pieces. That doesn't fully come across in these performances. The singers try to do too much in the solo episodes: the singing is often rather pathetic, in a dramatic style which is more appropriate in 18th-century opera than in oratorios like these. They are also sometimes overly loud and use too much vibrato. There is too much difference between the solo parts and the ensemble episodes which is at odds with the very character of these works. In the closing chorus of Jephte some singers add ornaments which sets them apart from the ensemble. This is simply wrong and destroys the coherence of this piece. This is the people of Israel lamenting the fate of Jephte's daughter, not a bunch of individuals.

Carissimi scored his oratorio for six voices and basso continuo, without instrumental parts. However, two violins participate in this performance, apparently adding improvised parts and partly playing colla voce. They don't add anything substantial. It seems that David Bates considered Carissimi's scoring insufficient. That seems to me a basic sin of any performer. The starting point of every interpretation should be that the composer is always right.

These performances have too many deficiences to recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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