musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674): "Jephte - Jonas"

Consortium Carissimi
Dir: Vittorio Zanon
rec: 25 - 28 Nov, 2003, Marino, Museo Civico
Naxos - 8.557390 (© 2005) (53'16")

Dai pił riposti abissia, cantata; Historia di Jephteb; Historia di Jonasc;

Annamaria Calciolaribc, Nadia Caristibc, Keiko Morikawabc, Linda Rossibc, soprano; Elena Biscuolabc, Marta Zanazzibc, mezzosoprano; Paolo Costabc, alto; Fabio Furnari, Dario Paolinibc, Raimundo Pereirabc, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Francesco Bianchibc, Garrick Comeaux, bass;
Roberto Lea, Monica Pelliciari, violin; Cristiano Contadin, lirone, viola da gamba; Giuliano Eccher, violone; Maurizio Piantelli, archlute; Pietro Prosser, theorbo; Marco Vincenzi, harpsichord, organ; Vittorio Zanon, organ

The name of Giacomo Carissimi doesn't appear that often on concert programmes or on the covers of CD recordings. Therefore it is rather remarkable that within a couple of years at least five recordings with his music have been released. Sometimes a commemoration - this time Carissimi's 400th birthday - does pay off. It is a shame, on the other hand, that so many of these recordings contain the same compositions. This disc is no exception: both oratorios are already available on record.
Although Carissimi also composed secular works and other kinds of religious music, it is mainly because of his oratorios that he has become famous. And his contribution to the genre is such that the oratorios by Handel are unthinkable without Carissimi. Handel knew his oratorios, and borrowed from them.

It is important to understand the goal of the oratorio. It was a part of the attempts of the Counter Reformation to strengthen the faith of the members of the Roman Catholic Church. The arts played a crucial role in these attempts. It was especially during Lent that oratorios were performed. The brotherhood of Santissimo Crocifisso in Rome was in particular active in promoting oratorio performances. For this brotherhood Carissimi composed his oratorios. The brotherhood contained of people of some social standing, which gathered together during Lent to listen to music and to a sermon, and stuck to the use of Latin rather than Italian. This explains the fact that the oratorios all make use of a Latin text.

Carissimi's oratorios are rooted in the Italian style which had been developed in the early decades of the 17th century. In the Historia di Jephte, for instance, Carissimi makes use of the stile concitato - best known today from Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda - to depict the battle of Israel against Ammon. Also very popular at the time was the lament, which appears at several moments in both oratorios. There is a long lament by Jephta's daughter, when she finds out that she is going to be sacrificed as a result of her father's vow to God. And in the Historia di Jona it is the prophet who sings a lament in the belly of the great fish which has swallowed him after he has been thrown overboard. This lament is then echoed at the end of the oratorio by the people of Nineveh when they have heard God's prophecy that he is going to punish the city for its sins.
Another popular compositional technique was the echo. Carissimi uses this in the lament of Jephta's daughter, when some of her words are repeated, like 'ululate' (weep), 'lachrimate' (shed tears) or 'resonate' (resound). Carissimi also makes use of the Venetian polychoral technique to illustrate the storm, which makes the crue of the ship throw Jonah overboard, and the calm which results from this.

As the two main compositions on this disc are available in other recordings, it is difficult to see any justification for a release like this. And the interpretation by the Carissimi Consort is just acceptable at best, but more often simply inadequate. Rhythmic vitality and a clear accentuation of the text are lacking in the choruses. The solo passages are generally not very well realised. Whereas some of the basses are too weak at the lower end of their tessitura, the voice of tenor Fabio Furnari lacks strength in the upper register. Both as Historicus in Jephta and in the role of the prophet Jonah he gives rather unsatisfying performances. Soprano Nadia Caristi's voice is too weak and colourless to realise the crucial part of Jephta's daughter. Nor the song of praise after the victory over Ammon nor her lament over her fate make any impact. Her diction isn't very good either, which is partly due to the fact she can't pronounce r's.

I have heard other recordings by this ensemble which I really enjoyed. But it seems Carissimi's oratorios are just not within their grasp. I would prefer to hear them in Carissimi's motets, of which he has written a large number, and which have hardly ever been recorded.

The secular works of Carissimi get even less attention than his motets. Therefore the inclusion of Dai pił riposti abissi, called a 'serenade' in the programme notes, is most welcome. The text was written by the then famous poet Francesco Balducci (1579 - 1642), who had close ties to ecclesiastical and aristocratic circles in Rome. The piece was originally written for two sopranos and bass, with strings and bc, but the two upper parts are sung here by a tenor and a baritone. It is performed reasonably well, but I get the impression that the singers are too much concentrating on getting everything right than really interpreting the piece. The sometimes big leaps in Carissimi's score give them some problems, and the intonation isn't always perfect. I also noted that they have sometimes problems with the highest or lowest notes of their parts, suggesting that their tessitura is just not wide enough to sing those parts properly. It is maybe as a result of the concentration on the technical requirements that there is too little ornamentation. This serenade suggests Carissimi's secular works are well worth exploring.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Relevant links:

Giacomo Carissimi

CD Reviews