Hellish Horrors and Heavenly Visions

United StatesUnited States Carissimi, Sances, Rossi, Kapsberger, Frescobaldi: Youngmi Kim (soprano), Michael Leopold (theorbo), Annalisa Pappano (lirone and viola da gamba), Elizabeth Motter (baroque triple harp), Catacoustic Consort, Church of the Advent, Cincinnati, OH. 1.12.12 (RDA)

Carissimi: Apokalypse, Lucifer
Sances: Stabat Mater
Rossi: Pianto di Maria Magdalena
KapsbergerPassacaglia in A
Frescobaldi: Canzon Terza

Seventeenth-century Catholic churchgoers must have felt quite a range of complex and conflicting emotions when listening to some of the music approved by the anti-Reformation Council of Trent. The intention of the Council was to curtail—or better, altogether do away with—the profane exuberance of composers who had straddled the worlds of Stage and Chapel and turned religious services into a musical bawdy-house. But these were Italian musicians Rome was attempting to restrict, and what resulted within the ranks of the sheep that strayed from the flock was precisely the opposite. New works were created brimming over with Mediterranean emotion, while inventively avoiding the wrath of the witless Roman censors.

Four of these compositions were brought to life in a concert in Cincinnati’s acoustically-friendly Church of the Advent by the Catacoustic Consort, an ensemble led by the formidably talented Annalisa Pappano. This unique group performs with period instruments vocal and instrumental music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, occupying a unique niche in Cincinnati’s musical life.

Giacomo Carissimi’s profane ballads and their celebration of the pangs and joys of carnal love are not a far cry from his Day of Judgment sacred cantatas Apokalypse and Lucifer. Catacoustic Consort’s compelling performance of these two works highlighted their author’s quirky characteristics. This is at prima face penance and prayer music, with no frills and seemingly no thrills, yet bubbling under its surface lie pent up urges and the terror of Divine retribution. Carissimi, a former operatic composer and womanizer and later an ordained priest, remained to his dying day a sentient and sinning man wearing the hair shirt of repentance while penitently composing music for the greater glory of the Church.

Giovanni Sances penned a delicate Stabat Mater—the Catholic prayer that depicts the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the cross: “Stabat mater dolorosa juxta Crucem lacrimosa” (“Sorrowfully and tearfully Mary sat next to the cross…”). Sances enjoyed a colorful career as an operatic tenor, and his exposure to the music of Monteverdi, Caccini and (later) Cesti served him in good stead. This Stabat Mater is for the church, but the story it depicts is the stuff of theatre, portraying Mary as a still-young woman unable to comprehend the enormity and the horror of what is happening to her son. Sances wrote with utter simplicity and without any artifice, and soprano Youngmi Kim served the composition admirably with a limpid voice ideally suited to this music, and with an assured grasp of its stylistic and vocal demands.

Luigi Rossi’s heartfelt depiction of the grieving Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross is also in the form of a solo cantata, and yet another work that owes a debt of gratitude to the world of opera—one that Rossi could never quite conquer but one from which he learned some useful techniques while living in various cities in Europe, working as composer-in-residence to various wealthy patrons. His Pianto di Maria Magdalena, in a heart-rending performance by soprano Ms. Kim, was one of the high points the evening. In or out of its original setting, the cantata speaks across the centuries with its emotionally-charged texts and sounds. Ms. Kim dispatched the spectacular roulades and trillos with dexterity and theatricality.

The Catacoustic Consort performed this fascinating program of Baroque rarities with vitality and fervor, with guest artist Michael Leopold playing extraordinarily on the theorbo—never more so that in the Passacaglia in A by Kapsberger. Chameleon-like Annalisa Pappano accompanied throughout at the lirone and viola da gamba and, in the second half of the program, delighted the audience with Canzon Terza by Frescobaldi. Elizabeth Molter extracted magical sounds from the Baroque harp, and in the final “Lucifer,” Ms. Kim’s voice floated above the proceedings bringing to life the hellish horrors and heavenly visions it depicts.

Rafael de Acha