musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Francesco DURANTE (1684 - 1755): "Concertos for Strings"

Ensemble Imaginaire
Dir: Cristina Corrieri

rec: June 18 & 19, 2016, Orta San Giulio, Sala Eleonora Tallone
Brilliant Classics - 95542 (© 2017) (1.38'05")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in B flat; Concerto per quartetto No. 1 in f minor; Concerto per quartetto No. 2 in g minor; Concerto per quartetto No. 3 in E flat; Concerto per quartetto No. 4 in e minor; Concerto per quartetto No. 5 in A; Concerto per quartetto No. 6 in A; Concerto per quartetto No. 7 in C; Concerto per quartetto No. 8 in A 'La Pazzia'a

Gian Andrea Guerra, Paolo Costanzo, violin; Zeno Scattolin, Valentina Soncinia, viola; Nicola Brovelli, cello; Carlo Calegari, double bass; Gianluca Rovelli, harpsichord

"Durante's extensive work has up to the present hardly been revealed", Peter Wollny states in his liner-notes to the recording of the composer's Concerti per quartetto by Concerto Köln (1990/92; reissued by Phoenix, 2009). Not that much has changed. He was one of the most prolific Neapolitan composers of his time and played a key role in the city's music life, for instance in his capacity as a teacher. Among his pupils were various composers who were among the most famous of their time, such as Pergolesi, Jommelli and Paisiello. It is probably the fact that he - unlike almost any Neapolitan composer of his time - never composed an opera and also produced very few instrumental works which has prevented him from becoming a household name in today's concert scene.

Recently several discs with sacred music from his pen have been released. Religious music constitutes the main part of his oeuvre. It comprises masses and mass movements, motets, lamentations, canticles and many other kinds of sacred music. Only very few secular vocal works have come down to us. In addition he composed a small number of instrumental works, among them the concertos recorded by Concerto Köln and more recently the Ensemble Imaginaire.

They reveal an important feature of his style: his preference for counterpoint, which is rather remarkable, considering that he lived in a time dominated by the galant idiom, in which counterpoint played a minor role. As the German theorist Johann Mattheson put it: not counterpoint, but melody was the foundation of music. In this respect Durante was out of step with his time. This may explain the negative comment of someone like Johann Adolf Hasse, who called his music "not only dry, but baroque, that is coarse and uncouth". However, it seems that Durante's music was well appreciated, considering the fact that copies of his works have been preserved in a large number of archives and libraries across Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Dictionnaire de Musique of 1762, called Durante "the greatest master of harmony of Italy, that is to say, of the whole world".

The eight Concerti per quartetto have also been preserved in a number of sources. The order of the concertos differs from one source to the other; here the performers follow the order in a manuscript preserved in the Library of the N. Paganini Conservatoire in Genoa. This source is different from others in that the Concerto No. 2 is missing. Instead it includes the Concerto in B flat, which has been recorded here for the first time and was not part of the Concerto Köln recording. The Concerto No. 2 has been taken from another source.

The number of movements varies from three (Nos. 5 and 8 and Concerto in B flat) to five (Nos. 1, 3 and 6). Most of them include a fugal movement, usually the second. That is not the only token of the role of counterpoint. The titles of some movements are telling. The second from the Concerto No. 3 is a largo, with the addition canone sopra canone ŕ 4. The second movement from the Concerto No. 4 is called ricercare del quarto tono, "not because it is really a Ricercar in the strict sense of the term (nor on account of the effective observance of the fourth ecclesiastical tone), but simply to indicate a stricter use of counterpoint, with less recourse to the concertante style than in the other movements" (Cristina Corrieri in the liner-notes).

Melodically and harmonically these concertos have much which make them stand out. The most remarkable piece is the Concerto No. 8, which bears the title La Pazzia, 'the folly'. That refers in particular to the opening movement, the longest of the set, which include many contrasts in tempo, rhythm and harmony. It shows that Durante, despite never having written an opera, was not devoid of theatrical talent. This movement includes an episode for two violas, without basso continuo. Also notable is the role of the first violin in the second movement from the Concerto No. 2.

I already referred a couple of times to the recording by Concerto Köln. Apart from the fact that the Ensemble Imaginaire plays the Concerto in B flat, which the German ensemble did not include, this new production is different in that the Italians play with one instrument per part. That is certainly a legitimate option; it is impossible to say, how many performers were involved in performances in Durante's time. That may have differed from one occasion to the other and have largely depended on the number of players available and probably also the venue where the performances took place. In the edition I own the players of Concerto Köln are not listed, but it is obvious that the ensemble is considerably larger than the Ensemble Imaginaire. A performance with one instrument per part is much more vulnerable, in particular in regard to intonation. That is indeed a little suspect here and there. Sometimes the sound is a bit sharp. I also did not find the performances always that interesting; there were some moments which I thought are a bit dull. The theatrical character of the Concerto No. 8 comes off very well, though, and there are certainly many moments where the players hit the nail on the head. The Concerto in B flat is a nice piece, whose character fits that of the set of eight concertos. It is a nice bonus, and is very well performed.

Especially as this production comes at budget price, it is well worth being investigated, even if you already have the Concerto Köln set.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

CD Reviews