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"À Portuguesa - Iberian Concertos & Sonatas"

Andreas Staier, harpsichord
Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música
Dir: Andreas Staier

rec: Feb 2018, Porto (PT), Casa da Música
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902337 (© 2018) (64'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/PT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Charles AVISON (1709-1770): Concerto grosso after Domenico Scarlatti No. 5 in d minor [2]; Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805), arr Andreas Staier: Quintettino in C, op. 30,6 'Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid' (G 324) (transp. to d minor); William CORBETT (1680-1748): Concerto in B flat, op. 8,7 'Alla Portugesa' [1]; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in g minor (K 8); Sonata in G (K 13); Sonata in b minor (K 173); José António Carlos DE SEIXAS (1704-1742): Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato in g minor; Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato in A

Sources: [1] William Corbett, Le bizzarie universali, op. 8, 1728; [2] Charles Avison, Twelve Concerto's in Seven Parts ... Done from Two Books of Lessons for the Harpsicord Composed by Sig. Domenico Scarlatti, 1744

Huw Daniel, César Nogueira, Miriam Macaia, Cecília Falcão, Reyes Gallardo, Bárbara Barros, Prisca Stalmarski, Ariana Dantas, violin; Trevor Mctait, Raquel Massadas, viola; Filipe Quaresma, Vanessa Pires, cello; José Fidalgo, double bass; Fernando Miguel Jalôto, harpsichord-

How often have you heard music from Portugal? I am referring here to 'classical music', not more popular genres as the fado. A large part of what was written by Portuguese composers of the 16th and 17th centuries has been destroyed in the earthquake which hit Lisbon in 1755. Much more has come down to us from the 18th century, when Portuguese composers were strongly influenced by the Italian style. However, their compositions are also seldom performed. Fernando Miguel Jalôto opens his liner-notes to the present disc with this statement: "Throughout the eighteenth century, Portugal and Spain remained fairly isolated from the rest of Europe, despite the efforts made by the two kingdoms to open their countries to the outside world". It seems that, as far as music is concerned, not that much has changed, at least not as far as Portugal is concerned.

In recent years I have reviewed several discs with music by Portuguese composers, but this kind of repertoire is still far away from being part of the standard repertoire of ensembles and performers in the field of early music. I wonder how many music lovers could mention the name of a Portuguese composer of the 17th or 18th century. The present disc is called "À Portuguesa", but only a part of the programme is Portuguese. It is probably because of this that the disc's subtitle refers rather to "Iberian concertos and sonatas". After all, Boccherini was an Italian composer who for most of his life worked in Spain, and the two English composers have little to do with Portugal. Even Domenico Scarlatti worked there for only a relatively short period of time.

That leaves Carlos de Seixas as the only true Portuguese composer. He was a musical prodigy who started his career at the age of just 14, when he succeeded his father as organist of Coimbra Cathedral. Two years later he moved to Lisbon where he became organist at Santa Igreja Patriarcal, which position he held until the end of his life. In addition, Seixas taught the harpsichord at the royal court. Here he also met Domenico Scarlatti who entered its service in 1720. There has been much speculation about the latter's influence on Seixas. Parallels between the keyboard sonatas of the two masters are obvious, but who exactly influenced whom is hard to decide. As a matter of fact, Scarlatti refused to give his younger colleague keyboard lessons. He was so impressed by Seixas' skills that, according to a Portuguese dictionary of 1760, he said that it was rather Seixas who should give him keyboard lessons. He added that "the man is one of the greatest masters I have ever heard".

Seixas has become almost exclusively known for his keyboard sonatas. It is assumed that he composed about 700 of them, about 100 of which have survived, none of them in autograph. However, he also wrote vocal and instrumental works, although the number of his extant works is very small. The work list in New Grove includes eight sacred vocal works and three instrumental compositions. Andreas Staier and the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música Porto offer here two harpsichord concertos. Only the very short Concerto in A, which lasts less than six minutes, is mentioned in New Grove. It probably dates from the 1730s and may well be one of the earliest keyboard concertos in music history. The Concerto in g minor is a much more substantial piece, probably written in 1742, and is in the galant idiom. However, the solo part shows quite some similarity with the keyboard works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. That goes in particular for the two fast movements. Considering its character and length (here a little over 14 minutes) there is every reason to add it to the repertoire of keyboard concertos. It is in no way inferior to CPE Bach's concertos. I consider this work the main discovery of this recording.

Domenico Scarlatti takes an important role in this recording. Staier plays three sonatas from the large corpus he has left. He stayed some years in Portugal, but for most of his life he worked in Spain. Charles Avison was a great admirer of the Italian style, and of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas in particular. He adapted a number of them for strings and basso continuo, and published them as a set of twelve concerti grossi. It is not always possible to identify the sonatas he selected. In the case of the Concerto grosso No. 5 in d minor, the booklet does not mention the sonatas on which it is based.

It may come as a surprise that another English composer is included here. William Corbett was a brilliant violinist, who played in the orchestra of the Queen's Theatre and in the royal orchestra. In 1728 he published Le bizzarie universali, in which he parodies various musical styles and composers. The Concerto No. 7 in B flat is called Alla Portugesa, but if one did not know that title, one would take it for a concerto by some Italian composer from the first half of the 18th century. As Jalôto rightly states, "it is difficult for us to distinguish today what the composer considered authentically Portuguese".

What then about Boccherini? He was certainly not in any way connected to Portugal, and the piece selected for this recording specifically refers to Madrid. It is certainly true that, as Jalôto writes, he was receptive to the influences of Iberian folkore. The Quintettino in C is one of Boccherini's better-known works, scored for string quintet with two cellos, as was Boccherini's habit. It is transposed here to d minor and arranged for a string ensemble and two harpsichords. That was a pretty bad idea. This piece of chamber music is "blown up", as it were, and loses its subtleties. Its effects are exaggerated, and that does not make this piece, which is probably not something for repeated listening anyway, more attractive.

The playing of Andreas Staier in the keyboard sonatas and concertos as well as the performances of the orchestra are very enjoyable. It is just a shame that the disc ends on a rather low note with Boccherini, whose quintet should have been performed in its original form. I also would have preferred a different selection of music. The disc's subtitle may refer to the Iberian peninsula, but it is Portugal which is supposed to be its main subject. And as so little music by Portuguese composers is available on disc, the omission of pieces by any of them except Seixas is a bit of a missed opportunity.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Andreas Staier
Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música

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