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Francesco FEO (1667 - 1740): "Missa - Confitebor"

Anja Zügner, Dorothea Wagner, soprano; Dominika Hirschler, contralto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass
Sächsisches Vocalensemble, Batzdorfer Hofkapelle
Dir: Matthias Jung

rec: Oct 11 - 13, 2007, Dresden, Lukaskirche
CPO - 777 333-2 (© 2009) (58'04")

Confitebor a 5; Missa a 5

In the 1720s and 1730s Naples was gaining ground in Italian musical life. Even a celebrated composer like Vivaldi began to feel the effects of the growing popularity of the Neapolitan style as his operas became less popular in comparison to the more melodious and galant operas by composers from Naples. Today the best-known representative of the Neapolitan style is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, whose Stabat mater is one of the most popular works of the entire 18th century and is probably as frequently performed as Bach's St Matthew Passion or Mozart's Requiem. But in his own days this work wasn't received with unanimous enthusiasm. Some considered his music far too operatic and frivolous for such a serious subject matter. Today the Neapolitan style is still often associated with easiness and superficiality. Of all Neapolitan music Pergolesi's Stabat mater is almost the only piece getting much attention, whereas most vocal works from Naples are largely ignored. This recording is very interesting as we get acquainted with a hardly-known composer whose religious music outweighs his secular oeuvre by far.

Francisco Feo was born in Naples and also died there. He received his first musical education at the Conservatorio di S. Maria della Pietà dei Turchini, at the same time as the much better-known Leonardo Leo. Very quickly he started to make a name for himself as a composer of operas, and also contributed arias and scenes to operas by other composers. His first big success was his opera seria Siface from 1723. This is also an important work for historical reasons: it was the first opera on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio who was to become the most famous librettist of the 18th century.

In the realm of religious music Feo composed music in all then common genres, like oratorios, masses, vesper psalms, cantatas and lamentations. On this disc one of his masses is performed, unfortunately without any specification. It is written for 5 voices with choir and orchestra, but thas doesn't help to identify it: Feo has written five masses with the same scoring. The programme notes mention the fact that this Mass, together with other compositions from Naples, found its way to the court in Dresden. This was the effect of the engagement of King Carlo III of Naples to Princess Maria Amalia of Saxonia in 1738, at which occasion music from both cities was exchanged.

Some Neapolitan music may be a bit simple and superficial, that is certainly not the case with this mass. The structure is a little odd: as common in Italy all attention goes to the Kyrie and the Gloria (together 33 minutes), whereas the Credo is rather short (9'30"). The Sanctus and Agnus Dei (together less than 3 minutes) are even little more than appendices which are limited to a declamation of the text without any repetition or elaboration. That is very different in the first two sections. Polyphony is rather rare in Neapolitan music, but Feo makes use of it several times: in the first Kyrie which is repeated after the Christe, and again at the end of the Gloria, on the text "Cum Sancto Spiritu". There is also some text expression: the verse 'Qui tollis' is set to descending figures, and the word "miserere" is followed by a general pause. In 'Qui sedes' the same word is set to dissonant chords. Dissonants also appear in 'Et incarnatus est' which is set homophonically. Dissonants, chromaticism and suspiratio figures are features of the 'Crucifixus' which is the most expressive part of this mass. Very eloquent is also the contrast between the tenor solo in the opening section of the Gloria on the words "et in terra" and the tutti on "pax".

In Confitebor tibi Domine (Psalm 110/111) soli and tutti alternate with the latter used as ritornellos. Two parts of the text are singled out with musical means: "Sanctum et terribile nomen eius" (Holy and frightful is his name) en "Initium sapientiae timor Domini" (fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom).

In the programme notes Gerhard Poppe writes that "both works are ideally suited for ridding the heads of many people of many inherited prejudices about Neapolitan sacred music". The performance aptly supports this wish, even though one has to question whether Feo's sacred music is representative of what was written in Naples. But the soloists, choir and orchestra give fine performances and explore the quite rich texture of this music well. The vocal solo parts are not very virtuosic. Only in the 'Laudamus te' there are some coloraturas of any difficulty. The soloists are therefore rather modest in their performances. I think they could have be a little more extraverted and show more presence. Obviously I don't know the score, but I would be surprised if the composer had asked for a staccato-like articulation as the singers produce in the opening section of the Gloria.

These niggling remarks don't spoil my great appreciation of this release which offers an interesting and worthwhile addition to the catalogue of Italian sacred music of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

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