The oratorios of the 17th century Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi, though distant ancestors of the familiar works of Haydn and Mozart, are quite different in scope and effect. They were church works, for one thing; the Latin oratorios recorded here were composed for Lenten celebrations in a Roman church, for literate worshippers who would have known the texts well and would have been attuned to what the composer was doing with them. Perhaps a good place for the modern listener to start is with the opening Jonas, which recounts the tale of Jonah's placement in belly of the whale and has as its climax his extended intra-cetaceian prayer. These oratorios are short -- of Bach cantata length -- with several recitatives or dialogues ("aria" would imply a degree of melodicism that generally isn't present) mixed with choral sections and capped with a chorus that drives home the moral point of the whole. The soloists include a narrator who sets the scene and fills in gaps in the action (or an ensemble can fill the narrative role). The chorus parts here are sung by the soloists themselves, with one voice per part, more defensible in this intimate music than in that of the High Baroque, although one still wonders what the church's choir would have done with itself while this was going on. The soloists involved, all stars of Montreal's early music scene, work effectively as an ensemble and keep the music moving in natural-sounding rhythms. Four oratorios in a row is a lot for the modern listeners, as indeed it would have been for Carissimi's audience. But this is a strong choice for an introduction to one of the major Italian composers of the 17th century. All texts are given in French and English translations, as well as the original Latin.
Giacomo Carissimi: Oratorios Review
by James Manheim