musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): "Or sì m'avveggio, oh Amore - Cantatas for soprano"

Elena Cecchi Fedi, soprano
Auser Musici
Dir: Carlo Ipata

rec: Oct 2006, Pisa, S. Domenica (Oratorio)
Hyperion - CDA67621 (© 2008) (55'20")

Credimi pur che t'amo; Già la notte s'avvicina (La pesca) [1]; Or che d'orrido Vernoa; Or sì m'avveggio, oh Amoreb

(Source: [1] Nuovamente composte opre di musica vocale, 1735)

Carlo Ipata, transverse flutea; Luca Ronconi, Heilke Wulf, violin; Maurizio Borzone, viola; Alessandro Palmeri, cello (solob); Riccardo Coelati, double bass; Francesco Romano, theorbo; Daniele Boccaccio, harpsichord

The first time I heard music by Porpora was probably in an early solo recital which the Belgian alto René Jacobs recorded with the Kuijken brothers, Anner Bijlsma and Gustav Leonhardt. He included Porpora's chamber cantata Or che una nube ingrata, which has an obbligato part for the cello. But since then hardly any recordings of his music have crossed by path, nor have I ever heard - as far as I can remember - any music by Porpora in live concerts. But since some time there seems to be a process of rediscovery of his music, or, maybe one has to call it rather 'rehabilitation'.

It is due to his rivalry with Handel that his name hasn't completely disappeared from the history books. But this rivalry hasn't done his reputation any good in modern times. Also the fact that he was from Naples didn't help him to be appreciated, as the Neapolitan style is generally considered a bit superficial. It is often emphasized that he was known for his beautiful and easy-flowing melodies, largely at the cost of a varied harmony, and that isn't always considered a virtue. While it is certainly true that he wrote beautiful melodies it is a simplification to state that he ignored harmony as a means of expression. The cantatas recorded by Elena Cecchi Fedi and Auser Musici prove that.

Porpora was famous as a singing teacher; among his pupils was the reputed castrato Farinelli. It is therefore not surprising that Porpora was an excellent composer for the voice. In that respect he was Handel's equal, and it is understandable that he developed into Handel's rival during his years in London (1733-1737). He was also considered the best writer of recitatives. Both qualities are demonstrated in the cantatas on this disc.

The first cantata, Or s`m'avveggio, oh Amore, immediately shows Porpora's ability to write a good recitative. Its first recitative is quite long - here it takes 1'17" - but never bores because Porpora very effectively translates the text into music. The two arias are very contrasting, reflecting the difference in content. This cantata, like Or che una nube ingrata I referred to above, has an obbligato part for the cello which is a very nice and well-written.

The cello also plays an important role in Già la notte s'avvicina. The basso continuo line was clearly written with specifically the cello in mind. The cantata appeared in a collection which was published in London in 1735. It was a beautifully printed edition, the costs of which were paid by Frederick, the Prince of Wales, who was Porpora's patron in his London period and who was an amateur player of the cello. It is the only cantata on this disc with just one recitative, which is embraced by two arias. The first aria contains a long coloratura on "respirar" (breathe), one example of Porpora's text expression as well as his habit of writing long melodic lines which are quite demanding for the singer.

Long coloraturas on single words are also present in the closing aria of the cantata Credimi pur che t'amo. Here the words "amami" (love me) and "adora" (adore me) are singled out this way. The first aria of the cantata is an example of the use of harmony for expressive reasons, in particular the B section.
Another specimen can be found in the first aria of Or che d'orrido Verno in which the protagonist laments being "far from the beloved" and feeling "all the pain of death". This aria is very demanding both for the soprano and for the player of the transverse flute which has an obbligato part in this cantata. It begins with a quite virtuosic Sinfonia in two movements for the transverse flute and the strings. Credimi pur che t'ama also begins with a Sinfonia in three movements for strings and bc.

This disc confirms my previous impressions of Porpora as a composer of expressive music whose melodious invention is remarkable. I have very much enjoyed these cantatas, not just because of the quality of the music but also because of the level of the performances. Elena Cecchi Fedi is simply brilliant in these cantatas. She sings the often virtuosic parts with impressive ease. Her ornamentation is excellent: tasteful and stylish, and never over the top. The way she sings the recitatives is exemplary: a splendid delivery of the text, with the right amount of rhythmical freedom. The instrumental ensemble gives equally immaculate performances; the obbligato parts are very well played. The expression in these cantatas is fully explored. To give just one example: in the closing aria of Or che d'orrido Verno dynamics are very effectively used on the words "for the treacherous wind" and "ploughs fearlessly".

This is an outstanding recording of first-rate music by an unjustly neglected composer. It is definitely one of my records of the year.
Those who want to hear more of Porpora I would like to refer to my review of two discs with sacred music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Auser Musici

CD Reviews