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"Salve Regina - Leo, Pergolesi, Porpora"

Federica Napoletani, soprano
Ensemble Imaginaire
Dir: Cristina Corrieri

rec: Sept 27 - 30, 2018, Arona, Palacongressi Marina e Marcello Salina
Brilliant Classics - 96092 ( 2020) (61'22")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Salve Regina in c minor; Salve Regina in F; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Salve Regina in g minor; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Salve Regina in G

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

Few texts have been set so frequently in the course of history as the four Marian antiphons: Alma redemptoris mater, Ave regina coelorum, Regina coeli and Salve regina. This bears witness to the importance of the veneration of Mary since early in the history of the Western Church. Its importance even increased in the wake of the Counter Reformation. The antiphons belong to the core of the Roman Catholic liturgy, and this explains the number of settings from the renaissance and baroque periods, and also the fact that several composers wrote more than one setting. That goes for all three composers represented here.

All three composers are representatives of the Neapolitan style, which disseminated across Italy and even beyond from the second quarter of the 18th century onward. Naples had several conservatoires, where musicians from the city - and those who were born elsewhere and came to Naples - were educated in singing, the playing of instruments and/or the art of composing. Opera played a key role in music life, and almost any composer wrote both for the church and for the theatre. The only exception was Francesco Durante, who largely confined himself to sacred music. Taking this into account, it cannot surprise that sacred music often included traces of opera. As far as the four settings recorded here are concerned, that is especially the case with the settings by Leo in F major and by Porpora.

Neither of the three composers is unknown, but in our time only a small portion of the oeuvre of Porpora and Leo is well-known and regulary performed. They are still more or less overshadowed by Pergolesi, who is often seen as the personification of Neapolitan music. However, even he is only really known for two compositions: the Stabat mater and the intermezzo La serva padrona. The former is an evergreen and available in many recordings and performed many times every year. It was already popular in the composer's own time, but also met some serious criticism, for instance from 'Padre' Giovanni Battista Martini, who is quoted in the booklet to the present recording.

Pergolesi died at the age of 26, but in his short career he had made a name for himself as a composer of operas. The work-list in New Grove lists a number of sacred works from his pen, but also a large amount of music which is either doubtful or spurious. Two 'authentic' settings of the Salve regina from his pen are known and available on disc, in c minor and in a minor respectively. The latter is the older of the two and the one which most reflects the galant style, whereas the latter is more conservative. This disc offers the first recording of a setting in g minor. The booklet does not discuss its authenticity. That would be useful, considering that New Grove does not include this particular setting, neither among the authentic compositions nor in the section of doubtful or spurious works. Where does it come from? It is a recent discovery? This setting is certainly a worthwhile addition to the catalogue and one of the more restrained settings on this disc. In 'Ad te suspiramus', the strings often play repeated notes, suggesting the tremolo which in baroque times was an expression of strong emotions. In the ensuing 'Eja ergo' section, the cello has an obbligato part.

Porpora is particularly known as the teacher of some famous castratos, such as Farinelli and Caffarelli. His credentials as a composer in his own right are still more or less neglected. His Salve regina in c minor is one of eight settings for solo voice; in addition he composed a setting for four voices. This particular version has an unmistakable operatic character. That manifests itself right at the start in the opening section, with a very long melismatic coloratura on "Sal[ve]". The third section closes with a cadenza ("valle"). The word "suspiramus" is set to an ascending figure. This section includes various sighing figures (Seufzer).

Leonardo Leo was one of the leading composers of his time in Naples. He was especially known for his operas, but little of that part of his oeuvre is performed in our time. Ironally, he is probably best known for his cello concertos, although instrumental music takes a relatively minor place in his output. His two settings of the Salve regina included here, are quite different in character, partly reflected by their keys. The setting in c minor is the more introverted of the two. The opening section includes Seufzer. In the second section, trumpet-like figures are used to illustrate the word "clamamus". It is the only section in the major. In contrast, the setting in F major is unashamedly operatic. The virtuosic coloratura on "dulcedo" in the opening section is telling. In the second section, Federica Napoletani rightly adds an extended cadenza.

She shows a good understanding of the character of the various settings. In the two versions in minor keys, she takes a more restrained approach than in the settings in major keys, where she is not afraid to pull all the stops, but even there she never goes over the top. Stylistically she is quite convincing as well; there is sometimes a slight vibrato, but it is mostly hardly noticeble. The main thing is that the performances fully explore the expressive features of these Salve regina settings. That is also due to the fine playing of the Ensemble Imaginaire.

Both the performances and the way the programme has been put together - two of the settings are first recordings - make this disc a winner and a major addition to the discography. They also shed further light on the Neapolitan style.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Imaginaire

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