musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674): Historia di Jephté - Historia di Jonas

Monique Zanettia, soprano; Hervé Lamyb, Jean-François Novellic, tenor; Jean-Claude Sarragossed, bass; Jean-Marc Aymese, harpsichord, organ
Ensemble Jacques Moderne
Dir: Joël Suhubiette
rec: July 7 - 11, 2003, Sancerre, Eglise de Notre-Dame
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0202129-03 (58'42")

Giacomo Carissimi: Historia di Jephtéa,b,c,d; Historia di Jonasa,b,d; Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 - 1643): Toccata per l'Elevatione for organe [1]; Pietro Paolo Sabbatini (c1600 - after 1657): Intermedio III [2]; Bernardo Pasquini (1637 - 1710): Toccata for keyboarde

(Sources: [1] Frescobaldi: Fiori Musicali, 1635; [2] Sabbatini: Intermezzi Spirituali, 1628)

The term oratorio is mostly associated with large compositions for soloists, choir and orchestra, like those of Handel. But the oratorios which were composed in Italy during the 17th century were much more modest, both in length and scoring. The oratorios by Giacomo Carissimi are a good example. Most of them last about 20 minutes or so, and are scored for a small number of solo voices, a choir and a couple of instruments.
Although Carissimi was not the inventor of the genre oratorio, it was this kind of composition he was most famous for. And the dramatic character of his oratorios made him a much sought-after teacher for a variety of musicians from all over Europe, like the Germans Johann Christoph Bernhard and Johann Caspar Kerll and the French composer Charpentier.

The Historia di Jephté is the best-known of the oratorios recorded here. The subject is a chance of a lifetime for a composer of Carissimi's dramatic talent. It has everything: a social outlaw is asked to lead his people in war and leads it to victory, only to find out then that the jubilation is short-lived as he has to sacrifice his daughter to God as a consequence of his own thoughtless vow.
Carissimi has exploited the contrasts in this story to the full. The oratorio starts with the Historicus telling that the people of Israel are suppressed by the Ammonites and that the 'Spirit of the Lord' came upon Jephtha and that he promises the Lord: "If the Lord shall deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, I promise that whatever comes first to me from my home shall be sacrificed to the Lord".
Then follows the description of the battle with the Ammonites, in a sequences of choruses and soli, written in the stile concitato. It is a shame the performance is a little too modest here, and the tempo a little too slow. As a result the dramatic impact isn't as strong as it should be. What follows then is a very moving description of the lament of the Ammonites, where Carissimi makes use of a four-note bass figure which is often used in laments in the 17th century.
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 his daughter 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. And then the chorus joins her: "Plorate, filii Israel, plorate, omnes virgines". Here Carissimi returns to the bass figure he used in the description of the lamenting Ammonites.

The Historia di Jonas is far less well-known and less often recorded. It is a fine work nevertheless. Here the choir is split into two, a feature which Carissimi uses to great effect, first in the description of the storm which leads to Jonah being thrown into the sea, and then at the end where the people of Nineveh do repentence for their sins: "Peccavimus, Domine, peccavi". In between there is a deeply emotional lament by Jonah, in which he acknowledges God's justice and begs for mercy. All three sections of this lament end with the phrase: "Placare, Domine, ignosce, Domine, et miserere."

The most dramatic sections in these oratorios are a little subdued, as I wrote before. But the laments are done very well: Monique Zanetti - who in other instances disappoints because of her too wide vibrato - is impressive as Jephtha's daughter, and so is Hervé Lamy in his lament of Jonah. Jean-Claude Novelli and Jean-Claude Sarragosse and members of the vocal ensemble are filling in the smaller roles convincingly.

The Historia di Jephté is followed by a Toccata per l'Elevatione by Frescobaldi, whose affect links up perfectly with the lament which closes the oratorio. It is followed by the short, but dramatic Intermedio III by Sabbatini, a dialogue between Dolore, suffering - obviously associated with sin -, and Angelo, an angel. The soloists in this piece are not mentioned, but they give a very moving interpretation. I had never heard of Sabbatini, but considering the quality of this particular piece I am curious to hear more from his oeuvre.

Even though this recording doesn't fulfill all expectations and doesn't exploit the dramatic possibilities of this music to the full, it is certainly a good way to get to know the great music by Carissimi. And as far as the repertoire is concerned, in particular the oratorio about Jonah is most welcome, as is the short piece by Sabbatini.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

Relevant links:

Giacomo Carissimi
Ensemble Jacques Moderne

CD Reviews