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Voices of an Ancient Age

New York
Gilder Lehrman Hall, Morgan Library
02/13/2024 -  
Claudio Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale: 16. “Confitebor tibi, Domine”, SV 267 – Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, SV 197 – Salve Regina, SV 327 – Exultent cśli et gaudeant angeli, SV 304
Giacomo Carissimi: Exulta, gaude, filia Sion – Super flumina Babilonis – Historia di Jephte

Lauren Lodge Campbell, Natasha Schnur (Sopranos), Clémence Vidal (Mezzo-soprano) Mathilde Ortscheidt (Contralto), Edward Grints (Bass)
Diego Bustamente, Elizabeth Kenny (Theorbos), Florian Carré (Organ), Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew (Musical Direction and Tenor)

From Jephte finale (© Les Arts Florissants)

Claudio Monteverdi, in moving our feelings, becomes the most pleasant tyrant of human minds.
Aquilino Coppini (1608)

The Most High has a decided taste for vocal music, provided it is lugubrious and gloomy enough.

Did Les Arts Florissants, that 35‑year-old icon of early/late Baroque music, make an error in presenting their Morgan Library evening as “a concert”?

Claudio Monteverdi revealed pure theater in his liturgical words. And while Giacomo Carissimi was less iconoclastic, his Jephte oratorio was staged as melodrama. Martial beginnings. A sobbing heroine. Lights dimming, females kneeling at the anguishing ending.

But no, this was indeed a concert, where the 17th Century’s greatest composer, and near‑greatest motet writer (of course Monteverdi and Carissimi) were featured.

The Monteverdi motets were by far the superior. They were dramatic, the emotions were charged and the singers were never shy in their feelings. All were good, the difficult melismas in the opening I will praise you Lord were radiantly sung by Lauren Lodge Campbell. Add to that the frequent singing in thirds with the other women, and one had a joyful Baroque session.

Add to this bass Eric Grint in his solo Laudate Dominum, again with the widest range,as have all the singers of Les Arts Florissants.

Their founder/conductor, William Christie, was missing here, but his longtime co‑director/conductor Paul Agnew had even more chores. As interlocutor, and as solo tenor, he made a fine impression. Communicating not only with body movements but–in the final Monteverdi piece–giving a charming duet with his female associate.

The final and longest work was not by Monteverdi. But for four centuries, Giacomo Carissimi’s Historia di Jephte has been highly regarded in Europe. True, it comes from one of the silliest story in the Book of Judges, yet both Carissimi and Handel a century later thought it worthwhile for an extended piece.

The summary? An Israeli bandit leader wants to slaughter his non-Israeli enemies, and God said he would help–for a price. In exchange, God wants him to kill the first person he sees on returning. (God doesn’t come cheap!) That’s his daughter. She agrees to die, but asks dad to wait while she bewails not having had sex before she dies. Amen.

Les Arts Florissants didn’t need a full chorus (as the oratorio sometimes possesses). Or a full orchestra (like Henze’s excellent transcription). Their madrigalian cast of six singers did the work in spades.

The first third of the work was a jubilant celebration of massacres, and all the singers came near to martial marching with (as says the libretto) “the spirit, strength and valor of the Lord.” When Jeptha appears, all changes. With joy and celebration, Mathilde Ortscheidt welcomes her father. And when she is told she must die, she accepts it willingly.

The last third is devoted to Jeptha singing a paean about her fate. And it is indeed beautiful. Ms. Ortscheidt may be a contralto, but her voice goes far into the soprano range. Her aria “Mourn you hills, grieve you mountains” is the only extended aria. (The rest of the oratorio is mainly in extended melodic recitatives.)

And what luscious music it. Her cries of lamentations are gloriously sung as her companions convincingly mourn, weep, and wail to great effect. The music, the echoes, the Biblical words, all could have been written by Purcell (Dido’s lament) or even Gluck.

C. Monteverdi/G. Carissimi

No, this isn’t Monteverdi–who would have added more arias–but on its own terms, is a masterwork.

Augmenting the music, the Gilder Lehrman Hall lights gradually dimmed, and the women in the chorus came forward, kneeling at the fervently crying Ms. Ortscheidt with, an extraordinary choral finale, “Weep all you children of Israel, weep ye virgins.”

So moving the emotion, so impressive the voices and the three instrumentalists that I for one would have gone home with those final luminous bars in my ears. But no, Les Arts Florissants finished with a jaunty enough encore. That is an unfortunate rule of the ensemble. But so closely knit were the harmonies, so masterful the voices, that one could forgive them anything at all.

Harry Rolnick



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