When I was in college, I had the good fortune to sing in a performance of Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio ‘Jephte’. I had never heard of this early Baroque composer at that time, and had no idea that such a powerhouse of expression came from that period, nor that many other lay in wait. Several of these pieces join ‘Jephte’ on this new Channel Classics hybrid CD/SACD.
‘Jephte’ has been famous in certain circles for a very long time, but I have not heard any recording made before the Erato LP which Michel Corboz made in the early 1970s. It is an expressive performance (available on CD in the Erato Ultima series), with a grand performance of the title role by Philippe Huttenlocher, but it is flawed. The first problem is the chorus. Carissimi’s score (like most of this period) does not indicate that a large chorus should be used. For many years, it was assumed that a moderate-sized chorus should be used for everything that wasn’t a named solo part. While this is certainly the case in later Baroque oratorios such as Handel’s, musicologists have in recent years been pointing out evidence that such pieces may have been performed one-to-a-part. Thus all recordings of ‘Jephte’ fall into the two groups – either they use a full choir, or only a group of soloists who sing together in the “choral” numbers. The early recordings by Corboz and Rilling fall into the first group, whereas most recent recordings are in the latter style. More contentious, however, is Corboz’s use of what appears to be a later, spurious orchestral accompaniment. The only orchestral indications in any of the existing period manuscripts of the work are for violins to double the voices in a few places (as this is probably also spurious, it is usually omitted in performance). Otherwise, the score calls for basso continui accompaniment only. The other big dispute is the coda-like extension found in some versions of the score. Most modern performances repeat the final chorus and omit the extension. Corboz skips the repeat and uses the extension. Thus in the final analysis, though it has much fine music making, the Corboz is inauthentic enough to severely skew one’s impression of Carissimi’s music. The Vox recording by Helmut Rilling from the early 1980s also uses full chorus, but it is prone to sluggish tempos and unexceptional singing.
Among modern historically informed performances, the battle heats up. Or at least, theoretically it should: In the early part of the work depicting battle (“Fugite, fugite, cedite, cedite impii”) the recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort gets laughably caught up in mannered phrasing and fussy dynamics to the point that, instead of sounding like sword-wielding soldiers, the singers sound more like perturbed picnickers swatting at mosquitos. The performance by Cantus Cцlln under Konrad Junghдnel on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is only marginally better in this passage. This new recording by Capella Figuralis and the Netherlands Bach Society led by Jos van Veldhoven rightly seizes the warlike passages with vigor and drama. Another bold touch is in the strange, chromatically sinking chorus “Et ululantes”. Traditionally this picture of the wounded, moaning enemies is performed very softly, forming a vivid contrast with the aggressive brightness of the previous pages. Van Veldhoven and company use a bold new idea: They start the chorus loudly and passionately, evoking the moans in the text. As they move through the chorus, they gradually fade until dying off with the final unison. A very chilling effect.
The plot of ‘Jephte’ is based on a Biblical story: Jephtha (to give the usual English spelling) has promised the Lord that if he is victorious in battle, he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his return. The first creature he spies is his daughter. Thus the title role and the part of Filia are critical to making the transition from the martial music of the opening to the powerful laments that close the work. Van Veldhoven wisely casts bass Mattijs van de Woerd as Jephte. Although the range of the role is high enough that tenors are often cast, its despair, not to mention the competition from basso continuo accompaniment, means that a big, rich voice is needed. Van de Woerd not only matches that need, he gives the strongest performance of the role I’ve ever heard, taking enough time in the lament “Heu, heu mihi filia mea” to let the emotional points hit with great force. By comparison, tenor Angus Smith in McCreesh’s recording is straitjacketed by the director’s concern with moving things along, and thus comes off curiously lightweight. Bass Wilfried Jochens fares a little better in Junghдnel’s recording, but again, the director seems afraid of letting this passionate music broaden out to its full, visionary scope. Van Veldhoven and his performers make no such mistakes. Filia is portrayed with beauty and agility here by Anne Grimm, matching the heartfelt performance by Johanna Koslowsky in Junghдnel’s rendition. And lest that sound like faint praise, it isn’t: Both sopranos leave the competition far behind.
As for the basso continuo, this new recording uses organ, harpsichord, violone, theorbo, and cello, providing for a very rich sound. Especially noteworthy are the gorgeous bass theorbo runs that Mike Fentross uses at key points. Another bold touch is the dance-like improvised lead in to Filia’s solo “Incipite in tympanis”, clearly establishing the daughter’s celebratory mood as she sees her father returning. This sets up a devastating change of mood when her father reveals to her his sacrificial pledge. I do somewhat miss the harmonium-like sound of the reedy chamber organ on Junghдnel’s recording, but there is compensating richness here.
But there is much more to this recording than ‘Jephte’. It features other composers of the period in vocal and instrumental works. One of the most famous composers of this age is the great Claudio Monteverdi, who is represented by the ‘Lamento della Ninfa’, which Johanette Zomer spellbindingly unfolds over an obsessive passacaglia bass line. Siebe Henstra contributes the dramatic and far-ranging ‘Toccata Seconda’ by Girolamo Frescobaldi, a work which pushes the natural tuning of the harpsichord right to the edge. Frescobaldi’s competitor Michelangelo Rossi appears here in his ‘Toccata Settima’, played affectingly on the organ by Pieter Dirksen. If the Frescobaldi pushes uneven-tempered tuning to the edge, Rossi catapults right over it near the end of the piece, in strange chromatic passages that would sound at home in something written in the 20th or 21st Century. Domenico Mazzochi was a rather obscure comtemporary of Carissimi, and his ‘Lamento di David’ shows the strong influence that Carissimi’s declamatory style had over his fellow composers (an influence that stretched at least as far forward in time as Handel). The German composer Johann “Giovanni” Kapsberger, who spent most of his career in Rome, is represented by his ‘Toccata Settima’ played here on lute by Mike Fentross. The work begins solemnly, even austerely, but gradually blossoms expressively. The ‘Lamentatio Virginis in depositione Filii de cruce’ comes from the Sienese nobleman Alessandro Della Ciaia, who was obviously far more than a dabbler in composition. Johannette Zomer sings the central role of the Virgin Mary with poise and impeccable tone, while never underplaying the surging emotions of the lament.
The stereo CD layer of this recording is beautiful in its own right, and the DSD stereo SACD layer is even more gorgeous. The sound stage opens up magnificently in the SACD multi-channel layer without diffusing the impact of the sound. The recording captures vocal and instrumental timbres with astonishing warmth and naturalness. I would rather that the harpsichord piece didn’t have the microphones moved in closer, but I can’t argue with the beauty of the sound captured. Also, comparing the recording of ‘Jephte’ to others was difficult as the twenty-four minute piece was allotted only one track here, but for purposes of regular listening, I couldn’t imagine not wanting to listen to the whole work in such an attractive performance and recording. Bravo to everyone involved.