Jeremy Marchant
July 1, 2010

Dominick Argento delivers a vivid account of this Bible story. Completed in 1973, it is an early contribution to a genre—the large-scale choral work—in which Argento (b. 1927) has increasingly worked.

Jonah and the Whale is scored for chorus, a trio of vocal soloists—a spoken narrator, tenor singing Jonah, and bass singing the Voice of God—and a trio of orchestral trios: three trombones, three percussion, and three “extended range” instruments (organ, piano, harp). Argento fashions a full-scale orchestral contribution from these nine players, which not once strikes one as thin, insufficient, or monotonous.

In the opening chorale, “The Lesson,” Argento sets out his wares. Here is a composer fully in charge of the compositional techniques he chooses to use. If this were a DVD release, it might state on the package the warning: “contains mild polystylism.” Argento juxtaposes a variety of styles reasonably convincingly. For example, Jonah’s aria, early on, “If I Bow to His Bidding,” sounds as if it has escaped from an upmarket musical, complete with angular vocal lines, but is followed by traditional sea shanties more or less untouched (and thus tonal—the writing has flashes of Britten here), and then by avant-garde ad lib. speech from the choir as the storm lashes Jonah’s boat.

Rather less successful is Argento’s use of a narrator. Right from the start, it is apparent that the narrator is amplified so that he can talk over the musicians. This strikes me as an unhappy decision. As the chorus and orchestra reach an early climax, the man is in there, the unnatural amplified sound of his fairly normal speaking voice easily defeating the mass of the choir and orchestra. It could have been far more dramatic to have an unamplified narrator shouting at the top of his voice the appropriate text “with these [God’s] harsh words rankling and roaring in his ear.”

For whatever reason, Argento depends considerably on the narrator to move the story forward and this is a weakness in the musical structure of the work. In the section recounting Jonah in the whale (where the amplification is surely unnecessary) it feels as if the music is no more than a decoration to the spoken text. At other times, the chorus and orchestra are performing interesting music and, frankly, I want to tell the man to shut up. In the section “In Ninevah,” the narrator speaks over the tenor soloist.

Turning to two choral masterpieces-with-narrator of the 20th Century—Roberto Gerhard’s The Plague and Hans Werner Henze’s The Raft of the Frigate “Medusa”—I note the (unamplified) narrator in each case is almost always separated in time from the musicians—often to good effect in both cases. In the Gerhard, there is quite a bit of spoken text to get through, but it is balanced by substantial sections for the chorus and orchestra (no singing soloists here). In the Henze, where the two singing soloists are the twin foci of the work, the narrator’s contribution is terse.

I feel Jonah and the Whale needs additional, substantial music for the chorus if choirs are to perform the work, and if audiences are to get as rich an experience as possible. I’m sure Argento’s writing for an inexpensive orchestra is intended to facilitate programming the piece. As it is, there are certainly enough good passages for the choir to make one wish for more, not least Jonah’s prayer in the whale, in which the choir sings a lovely setting by Argento of the De profundis against Jonah’s plea for release.

But ultimately this feels like a work for narrator, tenor, and bass in which the chorus and orchestra play subordinate roles. Entertaining, though, by its own lights.

I have not had the chance to listen to this SACD on suitable equipment but, played on a conventional CD system, the recording is excellent.

— Jeremy Marchant

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