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Antonio LITERES (1673 - 1747): "Sacred Cantatas for Alto"

Carlos Mena, alto
Concerto 1700
Dir: Daniel Pinteño

rec: July 2020, San Lorenzo de El Escorial
1700 Classics - 170003 (© 2021) (55'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/ES; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Cuando a pique, Señor; De aquel fatal bocado; Si el viento; Ya por el horizonte

Ricard Casañ, trumpet; Jacobo Díaz, oboe; Daniel Pinteño, Pablo Prieto, violin; Ester Domingo, cello; Ismael Campanero, violone; Pablo Zapico, theorbo; Ignacio Prego, harpsichord, organ

Antonio de Literes is one of the better-known Spanish composers from the first half of the 18th century. He was held in high esteem by his peers, and took a key position at the music scene, as he was connected to the royal court in Madrid from the age of 13 until his death. To date it is almost only his music for the stage that has been performed and recorded; his sacred oeuvre has hardly received any attention. From that angle this recording of four sacred cantatas is of great importance, also because they document the stylistic development in his oeuvre and in Spain at large.

Literes was from Mallorca, and entered the Real Collegio de Niños Cantores in 1686. Only six years later he was already active as an interim music teacher. In 1693 he entered the Royal Chapel as a player of the cello. He held this post until his death. In 1709, when the then maestro de capilla went into exile in France, Literes and Josep de Torres were given the task of composing music for the Royal Chapel. That task became even more important when in 1734 a fire in the Alcázar palace destroyed its musical archive.

From early on, Literes also participated in performances of the royal theatre orchestra, and this must have inspired him to start writing music for the theatre himself. Four zarzuelas and Los elementos, a kind of serenata, have survived. It is notable that his theatre music was allowed to be performed in public theatres in Madrid as well. They were performed many times to great acclaim, as late as 1734, even though they all dated from before 1720. It is a further token of his status as a composer in his time.

Literes's extant oeuvre is not that large. In addition to his music for the stage, it comprises ten secular cantatas and a handful of other secular works, as well as five sacred cantatas and some liturgical music, including masses, music for Vesper services, Magnificats and villlancicos and tonos. The four cantatas recorded by Carlos Mena and Concerto 1700 are all scored for alto and an ensemble of violins and basso continuo, some with additional parts for oboe or trumpet. They are called Cantada al Santísimo - cantata to the Blessed Sacrament. "Likely, these works were originally meant to be performed at the 'forty hours' devotion that was held in the Real Capilla [Royal Chapel]. This ceremony consisted of the exposition of the Blessed sacrament once a month for forty hours, which represented, according to Saint Augustine, the time that elapsed between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. During the devotion of the consecrated host, several villancicos, cantatas and instrumental works were performed" (booklet). A large part of Literes's oeuvre has been preserved in the Historical Archive of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, and that also goes for these cantatas. This again bears witness to Literes's reputation.

The cantatas follow the model of the Italian secular cantata, whose form had been established by Alessandro Scarlatti: two pairs of recitative and aria. It bears witness to the influence of the Italian style in Literes's oeuvre, and in Spanish music of the 18th century in general. These cantatas also show that there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular at that time. In the texts we find many images which were also used in secular cantatas (and operas, for that matter). One of them is that of a ship in a storm at sea, in secular music an image of the trials and tribulations of love, but in Cuando a pique, Señor it is used as a metaphor for a believer guided by God amid the temptation of sin. Other cantatas refer to wind and stream. Only De aquel fatal bocado refers to the Bible, in that the opening recitative mentions the fall of mankind in Paradise: "Since that deadly bite, the first for man in bitterness, in death, caused by his sin, my Lord comforts me (...)".

In all four cantatas the voice is joined by two violins and basso continuo. As was common in Spain, they have no part for a viola. In the closing aria from Cuando a pique, Señor, the violin has an obbligato part. In three cantatas Literes added parts for winds. In Si el viento and De aquel fatal bocada the violins are joined by an oboe. In several respects, Ya por el horizonte is different from the others. First, this piece is a mixture of cantata and villancico, as between the first aria and the second recitative two other sections are inserted: a grave and a coplas; the latter has the character of an arioso. Second, the strings are here joined by an oboe and a trumpet. The latter's participation can be explained by the text: the first aria opens with the words "May it sound, the graceful bird at dawn, a trumpet in the wind, a horn on the ground, a mermaid in the sea". The trumpet is again mentioned in the B section of the closing aria, and here we hear an ingenious dialogue between the trumpet and the oboe, imitating each other as well as the voice. It is the most brilliant piece at this disc.

These two parts for oboe and trumpet are quite demanding, and so is the part for the voice, not only here, but also in other cantatas. There can be no doubt that Literes was a very fine composer, and this disc makes one understand why he was held in high esteem. The recording of these four cantatas is not only of historical importance, but also musically rewarding. These pieces are substantial additions to the growing repertoire of Spanish music of the 18th century that is represented on disc. The performances are as good as one may wish. Carlos Mena is a great performer and here he shows his qualities in abundance. His wide tessitura is impressive: there is no stress whatsoever on the top notes, and his low register is well developed. His treatment of the extensive coloratura in the arias is excellent, and I greatly appreciate the way he performs the recitatives. The performances of the instrumental parts are no less impressive, and I have to mention especially the contributions of Ricard Casañ on the trumpet and Jacobo Díaz at the oboe. The last aria from Ya por el horizonte is quite intriguing, as here the oboe successfully tries to imitate the sound of the trumpet. The recording substantially contributes to the impact of this aria, as the trumpet is on the right of the sound spectrum, and the oboe on the left side, which makes the dialogue all the more effective.

I have greatly enjoyed this disc, because of the music as well as the performances, and I hope that some day we may also get some of Literes's liturgical music.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Concerto 1700

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