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Francesco DURANTE (1684 - 1755): Sacred Music

[I] "Neapolitan Music for Christmas"
Roberta Mameli, soprano; Ursula Eittinger, mezzo-soprano; Andreas Post, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass
Die Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens
rec: Nov 18 - 21, 2010, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 777 571-2 (© 2011) (72'51")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Ad presepe venite, 'Pastorale o Mottetto per la nativitate Jesu Christe' in G; Gloria 'in Pastorale' in A; Litanie della Beate Maria Virgine in f minor; Magnificat a 4 in c minor; Magnificat a 4 in B flat

[II] "Neapolitan Music for Christmas II"
Christina Kühnea, Monica Piccininib, soprano; Ursula Eittinger, mezzo-sopranoc; Alberto ter Doest, tenord; Thilo Dahlmann, basse
Die Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens
rec: Nov 14 - 17, 2011, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 777 734-2 (© 2012) (70'27")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Cito pastores à pastoralebcde; Gloria in afflictionis tempore in Fabcde; Laudate pueri 'detto il Grottesco'abcd; Litanie à due voci con violini in e minorbc

Especially during the second quarter of the 18th century the music of the Neapolitan school disseminated across Italy and beyond the Alps. This style is of a mostly galant character and often negatively associated with easiness and superficiality. There is more to it, though, as in particular the sacred music of some Neapolitan composers shows.

Francesco Durante is a rather exceptional figure in the Neapolitan music scene. Opera had a central place, but Durante never composed one. However, he did write some 'sacred dramas', as they were called, but only one of these has been preserved. Some arias in the sacred pieces on these two discs have a quite operatic character, though. Even so, Durante was especially admired for his command of counterpoint. It is telling that he was a student of the Roman composer Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni. Pitoni wrote mostly in the stile antico, although he incorporated elements of the concertato style in his compositions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered Durante "the greatest harmonist of Italy, that is of the world". He was a highly respected figure in Naples and occupied important positions at various conservatories during the course of his life.

These discs present Christmas music, as their titles indicate. That is not quite correct, though. Both discs include a setting of the Litanie della Beate Maria Virgine and these are not specifically related to Christmastide. The addition in Pastorale to the Gloria in A indicates that it was written for that time of the year, but the Gloria in F has the addition "in time of trouble" which suggests another, probably specific, occasion. Strictly speaking even the Magnificat is not connected to Christmas, even though it is often sung at that time. The Magnificat in c minor is taken from a manuscript entitled Vespro breve which suggests a general use in Vesper liturgies rather than specifically at Christmas. It is largely written in the stile antico. In the Magnificat in B flat Durante includes old-fashioned and modern elements. There are several episodes in the stile antico, but 'Suscepit Israel' is in the galant idiom. This is one of Durante's most famous works and was frequently performed until the late 19th century. It was originally scored for 5 voices, but here we hear a later arrangement for four voices with organ accompaniment.

One of the features of the real Christmas music on these two discs is the siciliano rhythm and the use of the 12/8 metre. These display themselves in the opening chorus of the motet Ad presepe venite which opens the first disc: "Come to the cradle, shepherds". The chorus is followed by a recitative and aria for soprano; the latter has an operatic character. The motet closes with a recitative and duet for alto and tenor. The same features are present in the motet Cito pastores with which the second disc begins. It has the same subject: "Quickly, shepherds, come singing". It is a motet for two solo voices, four-part chorus, strings and bc. It has also the same structure: chorus, recitative and aria for soprano, recitative and duet, the latter two here for soprano and alto. The chorus takes a da capo form.

All the music on these two discs is performed with one voice per part. I am not sure whether that is always in line with the performance practice in Durante's time. It is appropriate, though, in Laudate pueri, a setting of Psalm 113. The four voices regularly sing in pairs: soprano/alto and tenor/bass. This psalm is again part of the Vesper liturgy and not specifically connected to Christmas. That is also the case with the two settings of the Litanie. These are not intended for a special time of the year, but are often sung or recited in May. Durante composed six settings, all four for voices, with the exception of the setting in e minor, which is for soprano and alto, with two violins and bc. The setting in f minor dates from 1750; the opening phrase reminded me of Pergolesi's Stabat mater.

The two Glorias are in fact missae breves: they begin with a rather short Kyrie, which is followed by an extended Gloria. Because of the weight of the latter - not only in Durante's oeuvre but in that of Neapolitan composers at the time in general - such masses are called Gloria. The tutti sections of the Gloria in A bear the traits of pastoral music, in particular 'Qui tollis' and the closing 'Cum sancto spiritu'. 'Gratias agimus tibi' and 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' are arias for soprano and bass respectively, and are operatic in character; both include a cadenza. The instrumental scoring is restricted to strings and bc. The Gloria in F which dates from 1749 is a much more exuberant setting in which the strings are joined by two oboes, two horns and two trumpets. The latter only play in the opening section of the Gloria. Durante makes use of echo effects in various sections, for instance in 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' where the horns echo the statements of the oboes. This piece includes several arias of an operatic character, especially the 'Gratias agimus tibi' for soprano, which includes a cadenza.

These are definitely interesting discs which shed light on a composer whose Concerti per quartetto made quite an impression when they were recorded by Concerto Köln. The performances are generally good, although I rate the second disc a little higher than the first. I find the performances of the first disc a shade too restrained, and dynamically too flat. It is regrettable that in both recordings the upper voices use a bit too much vibrato which slightly damages the ensemble. The operatic solo parts are sung rather well. There is not that much difference in this respect between Roberta Mameli and Monica Piccinini.

According to the track-list all the pieces on these discs were "arranged" by Michael Alexander Willens, Nicola Heine or Luna Oda. Unfortunately the liner-notes omit to tell us what exactly "arrangement" means.

Considering the fact that so little of Durante's vocal oeuvre has been recorded these discs are most welcome. In particular those who like to hear something less conventional during Christmastide should investigate them.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Die Kölner Akademie

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