American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
July 1, 2010

Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale (1973), for narrator, two soloists, chorus, and a small chamber group of three trombones, three percussionists, piano, harp, and organ, cobbles together the story through the 14th-century poem “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale” interspersed with 4th-century Vulgate Psalms, 17th-century Protestant hymns, 19th-century work songs and sea shanties, and vaguely lyrical 20th-century Britten-esque 12-tone declamation set against a firm tonal background. The King James Bible and traditional Latin prayer texts are firmly present, even though Jonah, of course, is clearly Jewish (and quite a Jewish caricature at that). This ecumenical combination sets up what the composer calls “intentional anachronisms,” in their way typical of the postmodern 70s. The piece is an effective enough Sunday School-type production, and should be of interest to relevant organizations seeking stimulating biblical fare (though some are bound to complain about the thoughtful and non-obvious conclusion). Soloists are competent and exclusively British, including narrator Oakes, though Daniel Norman is more convincing as Jonah than Daniel Cole’s somewhat mealy-mouthed God. The fine chorus and orchestra are from New, not Olde, England.

Listeners more tolerant than I of spoken word in a musical context will probably be amenable to this affair, which would work in a proper (perhaps semi-staged) context, particularly in front of the kids if they will tolerate something other than rock music (it was originally commissioned by a Minneapolis church). Argento’s experience in the theater serves him well, and I’m delighted to report that the ending is not as banal as it could have been (we are left with questions, not answers). As for high points, there is a beautiful setting of De Profundis that closes Part 1, and a Kyrie from an early Mass by Argento written for his father, its Christe sung radiantly by soprano Amanda Forsythe. There is some fine music here, but whether or not the CD format is the ideal medium for the work may be a matter of contention.

- Allen Gimbel

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