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Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 - 1674): "Piangete - Cantatas & Motets"

Concerto delle Donne
rec: Feb 2001, Church of St Lawrence, West Wycombe (UK)
Signum - SIGCD040 (66'24")

Giacomo Carissimi: Ahi, non torna, cantata for 2 voices and bc b,c,d,e; Benedictus Deus et Pater, motet for 3 voices and bc a,b,c,d,f; Cum reverteretur David, motet for 3 voices and bc a,b,c,d,f; Exulta, gaude, filia Sion, motet for 2 voices and bc a,c,d,f; O dulcissimum Mariae nomen, motet for 2 voices and bc a,b,d,f; Omnes gentes gaudete cum victore, motet for 3 voices and bc a,b,c,d,f; Piangete, ohimŤ piangete, cantata for solo voice and bc a,d; Si dia bando, alla speranza, cantata for solo voice and bc b,d,e; Siam tre miseri piangenti, cantata for 3 voices and bc a,b,c,d,f; Surrexit pastor bonus, motet for 3 voices and bc a,b,c,d,f; Va dimanda al mio pensiero, cantata for solo voice and bc c,d,e; Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 - 1643): Partite sopra Le Moniche [1] e; Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c1580 - 1651): Preludes X and XI [2]; Toccata XI [2] d; Michelangelo Rossi (1601/02 - 1656): Toccata VII [3] e

(Sources: [1] Toccate d'Intavolatura di Cimbalo et Organo, Rome 1637; [2] Libro IV d'intavolatura di chitarrone, Rome 1640; [3] Toccate e Corenti, Rome 1657)

Donna Deam a, Gill Ross b, Elin Manahan Thomas c, soprano; David Miller, chitarrone d; Alastair Ross, harpsichord e, organ f


In the í30s and í40s of the 17th century Rome was the place to be. The music scene was dominated by two composers who had an international reputation and attracted pupils from all over Europe: Girolamo Frescobaldi, whose main activity was in the field of keyboard music, and Giacomo Carissimi, who predominantly composed vocal music.

In 1629 Carissimi became maestro di cappella of the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, where students from German-speaking countries received a theological education with everything that was connected to it. One of those things was music: Carissimi was responsible for the musical performances at the Collegio and for the music classes as well. But he also attracted pupils from outside the Collegio. Among the most famous were Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Johann Caspar Kerll, Christoph Bernhard and perhaps also Agostino Steffani.

Carissimi nowadays is mainly known for his oratorios, which were not written for the Collegio. This disc presents a number of motets which were composed to be performed during the daily services at the church of the Collegio, the S. Apollinare. One of the features of these motets is that biblical or liturgical texts are often extended with new poetry. Other pieces donít have liturgical or biblical texts, but are only inspired by them.
But this recording doesnít only contain sacred music: there are a number of cantatas, which Carissimi composed, in particular in the 1650s, for the court of the Swedish Queen Christina, who had abandoned the throne after her conversion to the Catholic faith and went to Rome, where she established herself as an important patroness of the arts.

Both the cantatas and the motets reflect Carissimiís dramatic style of composing. There is a close connection between words and music, and some effective word painting. Often the sections of a piece are strongly contrasting. And Carissimi must have had excellent singers at his disposal, since many pieces are virtuosic and technically demanding.

The other big name in Rome, Girolamo Frescobaldi, is also represented here, unfortunately with a keyboard piece which is very often recorded. That is also the case with the Toccata VII by Michelangelo Rossi, who was also active in Rome in the 1640s and 1650s. The fourth name on this disc is the German-born Kapsberger, a virtuoso on lute and chitarrone.

Listening to this disc has really made me angry. It contains some of the finest and most dramatic music which has been written in Italy in the mid-17th century. And we also have three singers with very beautiful voices, blending very well, and singing with a minimum of vibrato, which allows the dissonances to come through strongly and the text to be understood very clearly. But they never really meet: the singers arenít able to bring about the dramatic character of the music. The tempi are very uniform, not only between but also within the pieces. There is a serious lack of declamation and no sensitivity to the theatrical character of the cantatas or the emotional content of the motets.

Everyone knows how important the Virgin Mary is in the Catholic faith. Therefore a piece like O dulcissimum Mariae nomen needs to be sung with real passion and commitment. The use of the messa di voce would have greatly helped to bring across the exalted character of this motet.
The opening item, Cum reverteretur David, deserves special attention. In the booklet Graham Dixon explains how the figure of David Ė a weak boy who was helped by God in his struggle against the giant Goliath Ė was appealing to the supporters of the Counter-Reformation (in particular the Jesuits). It means that a piece like this should be performed with strong engagement and conviction. But that is absent here.

The performance of the cantatas isnít very different. In some cantatas the words are placed in the mouth of the protagonist, but the singers seem not to be able to show any identification with that protagonist. One of the most expressive cantatas is Siam tre miseri piangenti (We are three wretched souls weeping), which contains some very strong passages like "may Hell swarm with a thousand furies and may their presence stop her daring and multiply her suffering in Hell". But the performance only gives a hint at what could have been. Often the tempi are too slow and the word painting isnít fully exploited.

Perhaps one could consider the performance of the two keyboard pieces as an indication of the general level of this recording. The playing of Rossiís Toccata VII is unimaginative and stiff beyond belief. All the excitement has disappeared. Frescobaldiís Partite sopra La Monicha isnít much better.

In the liner notes Graham Dixon refers to the popularity of Carissimiís music in England in the 17th century, and "hearing performances of Carissimi by musicians based in England is therefore a completely authentic experience (...)". If that is meant as an excuse for unexpressive performances of Carissimiís very expressive music, it is pretty lame.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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