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CD Review

Giacomo Carissimi

Complete Motets of Arion Romanus

  • I Mortalis homo
  • II Sicut stella
  • III Convertere
  • IV Domine deus
  • V Panem caelestem
  • VI Anima nostra
  • VII Laudemus virum
  • VIII O dulcissime Jesu
  • IX Sicut mater
  • X Ecce sponsus
  • XI Hymnum jucunditatis
  • XII Viderunt te domine
  • XIII Quis est hic
  • XIV Omnes gentes
  • XV O Beata virgo
  • XVI Egredimini
  • XVII Benedicite
  • XVIII O Beatum virum
  • XIX Gaudete cum Maria
  • XX Salve virgo
  • XXI Audite sancti
  • XXII Quo tam laetus
  • XXIII Quasi aquila
  • XXIV Exurge
  • XXV Ardens est cor meum
  • XXVI Ave dulcissime
  • XXVII Si deus pro nobis
  • XXVIII O quam dilecta mensa
Ensemble Seicentonovecento/Flavio Colusso
Brilliant Classics 94808 3CDs
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The breadth, originality and sheer beauty of the writing of Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) would surely win him many friends – were it better known and more often performed. And admirers: the composer's construction and transformation of texts oozes authority and quiet command. For all the ways in which his contemporary, Monteverdi, is speculative and exploratory, Carissimi is sure-footed and "established"; though this is not to suggest that his beautiful music is stolid or conservative. There are moments (like the end of the "Sicut Stella" [CD.1 tr.2], for instance) when delight in the confessional essence of the text provokes beautifully ornamented and decorated runs, triplets and almost playful circling around notes and phrases. The same gentle loveliness is evident in his harmonies… listen to the quieter moments of "Sicut mater" [CD.2 tr.1]. They are harmonies that lead the music forward first, and are so pleasing on the ear only secondly.

This set of three CDs from Brilliant contains the entire collection of motets by Carissimi, whose innovative approach to music earned him the epithet "Arion", the emblematic Greek figure from the seventh century BCE, renown for developing new ways of writing music and poetry so successful that they served as exempla long after Arion's death. So this excellent set of just over two dozen motets performed for the most part with style, sensitivity and sympathy by Ensemble Seicentonovecento draws attention to the color, life and energy in Carissimi's writing. Yet sets it in the wider history of (Baroque) vocal music.

Ensemble Seicentonovecento consists of 11 instrumentalists, including Flavio Colusso, conductor and harpsichordist/organist. The nine singers distribute their contributions across the 28 numbers with the upper voices predominating. It's a pity that some of the sopranos are a little weaker (in accuracy of tone) than is really needed to make the most of this gorgeous music. Based in Rome and founded over 30 years ago by Colusso, the Ensemble performs music from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth centuries – as its name indicates. Obviously at home with the music of Carissimi, they have performed and recorded other of his music, including the complete Oratorios (also for Brilliant Classics) and make by-and-large persuasive advocates for his music. This collection would be a gem if it were not for the faltering of those few sopranos. Although their articulation and expression is convincing at all times, holding the melodic line precisely is not.

The text is the starting point for all these motets. Carissimi adapts and embraces each verse in such a way as to engage the listener on several levels: emotion, empathy, advocacy. An originator of defiant and lovely oratorios, the Roman whose influence spread much further even than Italy was in another way the inverse of Monteverdi: if the latter wrote music which diverged from ostensibly simpler origins, it was important for Carissimi to guide the listener in a more controlled (though never restricted or artificial way) through a remarkable range of emotions.

These performances explore many emotions in many ways. Joy, devotion and wonder are amongst the most prominent. The musicians, though, rightly emphasize the reasons for such expressions, rather than situate them in a vacuum. Carissimi is fascinated by texture and contrast. The Ensemble here follows that curiosity; yet the result is successful communication of Carissimi's sublime music, not a "presentation" of the composer's skills. Spiritual elevation is rightly present. But it's always grounded in the relationship between the religious import, the techniques at the composer's disposal (harmony, counterpoint, melodic surprise and particularly felicitous juxtapositions of instrument and voice) and an almost always dramatic impact: opera was emergent or even suppressed at the time when we think these motets were being written. Carissimi's music (here) is as accessible to the modern listener as anything of that age and genre.

For all that one or two of the singers of Ensemble Seicentonovecento are a little weak (Arianna Miceli's, Elena Cechi Fodi's and Maria Chiara Chizzoni's are at times intrusively unsteady sopranos, for example), the sure and informed hand of conductor Flavio Colusso binds what benefits from being a disparate collection ("Arion Romanus" is actually the title of this 28-strong collection of Carissimi's compiled by Giovanni Battista Mocchi after 1670) together well for the listener. Some of the attributions to Carissimi remain in doubt. But there's a unity and gentle yet dynamic sense of purpose that – as composers of the time would have intended – puts the music as distinctly at the service of that devotion.

The great strength of this three-CD set is that the performers feel, understand and can articulate this intention of Carissimi's. This is all the more of an achievement since none of the 28 texts occupies a standard liturgical position per se. There are Biblical and Psalm extracts, for instance, but they do not form part of a conventional service. Nevertheless, Ensemble Seicentonovecento is expressive without having to varnish.

This recording was made in the Basilica di San Giacomo in Augusta in Rome in 2000. It's a "contained" and unpretentious interior completed not long before Carissimi's birth. Surprisingly dry, it nevertheless exposes every syllable and instrumental nuance to the listeners thanks to imaginatively suitable recording technique. The booklet unfortunately lacks the texts of the motets entirely but contains useful context for those new to the music of this sublime composer. Very few of these motets are otherwise available on CD; this would make an excellent introduction to Carissimi and, reservations about some of the singing aside, is recommended.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey