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Costanzo PORTA (1528/29 - 1601): Missa Mortuorum

Istvánffy Chamber Choir
Dir: Lörinc Muntag

rec: July 10 - 12, 2018, Sopronbánfalva, [Queen of Heaven Church]
BMC Records - BMC CD 306 (© 2022) (56'38")
Liner-notes: E/HU; lyrics - translations: E/HU
Cover & track-list

Costanzo PORTA: Missa mortuorum a 5 (with plainchant); Qui vult venire post me a 7

Eszter Gyüdi, Roberta Szklenár, soprano; Dorottya Suba, Viola Thurnay, contralto; Ádám Hohmann, Bálint Kis, Márton Tóth, Márton Ujházy, tenor; Domonkos Dergez, Péter Mekis, bass

Costanzo Porta was one of the lesser-known contemporaries of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. In his time he was a much celebrated composer. The number and status of the people who helped him in his career and the positions he occupied, attest to that. He was one of the last representatives of the stile antico. In his oeuvre we don't find any traces of the style that was to conquer Europe from around 1600 onwards.

Porta was born in Cremona and was probably educated at the Franciscan Minorite convent of Porta S Luca there. In 1549 he moved to Venice, where he became a pupil of Adrian Willaert. He befriended another of Willaert's students, Claudio Merulo. Porta's first official position was that of maestro di cappella at Osimo Cathedral in 1552, which he held for 13 years. There he gained the patronage of the Della Rovere family, the ducal house of Urbino. His first publications of music were dedicated to members of this family; one of them was a cardinal. From 1565 to 1567 Porta was maestro di cappella at S Antonio in Padua. There he became acquainted with Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and his son Francesco. It was a member of the Della Rovera family, who was archbishop of Ravenna, who asked him to move to that city, where he stayed for the next seven years. At the instigation of the archbishop he moved to Santa Casa at Loreto in 1574. In the 1580s Porta visited the Este court in Ferrara, where he met Luzzasco Luzzaschi, and the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he became acquainted with Giaches de Wert. At both courts his own madrigals were well received. At that time he had become a celebrity: in 1587 he was elected to membership in the Congregazione dei Signori Musici di Roma, a group that included such illustrious figures as Palestrina and Lassus. Porta was also well-known as a teacher; among his pupils may have been Girolamo Diruta and Lodovico da Viadana.

The last stage of Porta's life brought him to Padua again. He took the post of maestro di cappella in 1589 and in 1595 he also became the director of music at the Convento del Santo. However, he suffered of a lack of protectors and of increasing ill health. In addition, he had to deal with intrigues on the part of his assistant and eventual successor. Porta died in Padua in 1601.

Porta left a large oeuvre of sacred and secular music. Between 1555 and 1585 nine collections of sacred music - masses, motets and litanies - came from the press. Posthumously, three collections of hymns, Vesper psalms and motets were published. A large number of works were included in anthologies or have survived in manuscript. In addition, he published five books of madrigals, and others were included in anthologies. Only three instrumental works are known.

Porta's compositions are dominated by imitative counterpoint, and are influenced by Adrian Willaert and Nicolas Gombert. Notable is his frequent use of the canon technique, sometimes in up to three voices. In his larger-scale motets he adopts the cori spezzati technique that was developed in Venice by Willaert. His masses are mostly of the cantus firmus type; among the material he used are madrigals by Palestrina and Rore.

The disc under review here includes two works: the Missa mortuorum for five voices and the seven-part motet Qui vult venire post me. The booklet offers almost no information on these works. Obviously, the mass is a Requiem; most of the sections are based on plainchant. It is an alternatim mass; the Sequentia (Dies irae) consists of twenty sections, sung alternately in plainchant and in polyphony. In the Absolutio, the phrase "When the heavens and the earth shake" (Quando caeli, movendi sunt et terra) is used as a refrain, sung at the end of each section. As one may expect, it is a solemn work. However, the Sanctus is notable for its lively character, which may be influenced by the madrigal style of his time, in which the text was given much attention. The mass is performed here as part of an Office of the Dead; the performers have added plainchant, but the booklet does not mention the sources.

The disc ends with the motet Qui vult venire post me, a setting of verses from Matthew 16: "If any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me". It is not part of the Office of the Dead, but fits the Requiem rather well.

The Istvánffy Chamber Choir was unknown to me. Its director started as a singer in the renowned Schola Hungarica. The ensemble covers a wide range of music, from plainchant to contemporary music. This disc shows that it is an excellent ensemble of fine voices, which blend perfectly. The lines are beautifully shaped, and the transparency is remarkable. The plainchant is very well sung, in perfect legato, with much attention to the text. Porta's music is little-known, and this disc should help to change that. The Istvánffy Chamber Choir and its director are the perfect advocates of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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