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Francesco DURANTE (1684 - 1755): Requiem

Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, sopranob; William Purefroy, altob; Mark Dobell, tenorb; Ben Davies, bassb; Clive Driskill-Smith, organa
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford; Oxford Baroque
Dir: Stephen Darlington

rec: July 4 - 6, 2016, Oxford, St Michael and All Angels Church, Summertown
Coro - COR16147 ( 2016) (63'27")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list
Score Requiem

Concerto for keyboard, strings and bc in B flata; Missa di Requiem a 8 voci in c minorb

Joseph Walters, Richard Bayliss, horn; Rodolfo Richter, Stephen Pedder, Beatrice Scaldini, Anna Curzon, Naomi Burrell, Alice Evans, Nia Lewis, violin; Rachel Byrt, Aliye Cornish, viola; Joseph Crouch, Gavin Kibble, cello; Kate Aldridge, violone; Francesco Baroni, harpsichord, organ; Clive Driskill-Smith, organ

Francesco Durante was a remarkable composer. He lived in a time that melody was considered the foundation of music, but he stuck to the contrapuntal tradition he had grown up with. He was one of the leading composers in Naples, but unlike most of his colleagues he did not compose a single opera, which was the main genre of his time. It didn't harm his reputation: he was held in high esteem, not only in Naples, but also elsewhere. His music was still appreciated and performed well after his death. His Requiem in c minor which is the main work on the present disc, bears witness to that.

Stephen Darlington, in his liner-notes to the present disc, mentions that more than 50 sources of this work are known. The earliest is the autograph manuscript of 1746, the latest a copy dates from 1871. It is likely that the first performance took place in Rome in 1746, but that cannot be proven with any certainty. If this assumption is correct, the occasion could have been the death of King Philip V of Spain; a Requiem Mass for him took place in S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli in September 1746.

The scoring of the vocal forces is in eight parts. That suggests a traditional division into two choirs of four voices each. But that is not the case. The main forces are a choir of five voices (SSATB) from which the soloists are taken. The second choir is in three parts: alto, tenor and bass. These act as ripienists who sometimes enforce the tutti, but elsewhere "produce a richer textual effect", as Darlington puts it. In addition, the second choir can be used to repeat phrases of the first choir.

It is in particular in the choruses that Durante's mastery of counterpoint manifests itself. It is hardly necessary to give one specific example as most sections of this Requiem are for the tutti, but I would mention the Benedictus - Osanna as a specifically good specimen of Durante's art in this department. Although the use of counterpoint suggests that this Requiem is rather old-fashioned, that is not entirely the case. The arias show the influence of contemporary opera, for instance through the inclusion of cadenzas. However, they are not overly virtuosic and certainly not vehicles to show off. It is notable that there are several passages for the two sopranos; these mostly sing in parallel motion. 'Quaerens me' in the Sequentia is a duet for soprano and alto, but they don't sing together. It consists of two sections: the soprano sings the first, the alto the second.

The 'Lacrimosa' opens with another duet for two sopranos, later repeated by alto and tenor. These include some strong dissonances, obviously inspired by the text: "Mournful that day [when from the dust shall rise guilty man to be judged]". Durante also uses harmonic means in the interest of expression in 'Mors stupebit' (Sequentia) and at the opening of the Communio. This Requiem is not devoid of drama either: Libera me is a telling example. The work opens with sighing figures (Seufzer) in the strings. A musical figure comprising a descending scale followed by a rising scale regularly appears in the Dies irae.

It is easy to understand why this work was appealing to Durante's contemporaries but also to later generations. It is a very fine work, notable for a clever mixture of elements of traditional counterpoint and modern fashion. There is much expression, through musical figures and an appropriate use of harmony. This Requiem is served very well by the performers. The soloists, members of The Sixteen, do a good job. Alexandra Kidgell and Katy Hill deserve special praise for their contributions; they have to sing the most of the solo passages. The choir is better than I expected. I have always felt that it was too much in the Victorian tradition, especially as far as the sound of the trebles is concerned. Often I miss some power and 'bite'. This choir certainly would not be my first choice in a piece like this, but overall they do pretty well here. However, I don't think that the expression in Durante's Requiem is fully explored. That not only concerns the vocal aspect, but also the playing of the strings which is a bit too flat. They are joined by two horns in the 'Tuba mirum'.

The disc ends with the Concerto in B flat for keyboard and strings, Durante's only work for this scoring and in fact one of the very few Italian keyboard concertos from the first half of the 18th century. It has been recorded before with the harpsichord as the solo instrument, but a performance with organ seems legitimate, although the former is probably the most plausible choice. Durante may have written it for himself; he composed a considerable number of keyboard works which show an intimate knowledge of the instruments and playing technique. This concerto is more modern than the Requiem; the tutti include little counterpoint. The left hand of the solo part is largely confined to an accompanying role. Clive Driskill-Smith delivers an immaculate performance of the solo part, and this concerto brings this disc to a vigorous close.

Durante is pretty well known, but he is not particularly well represented on disc, certainly not with specimens of his vocal music. For that reason as well as for the quality of this Requiem in c minor this disc deserves a wholehearted welcome.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Oxford Baroque

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