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Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): Cantatas

Iestyn Davies, alto
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: Dec 10 - 13, 2010, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Hyperion - CDA67894 (© 2011) (78'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

Dal povero mio cor; Destatevi, o pastoriab; Oh Dio, che non è vero; Oh se fosse il mio core; Or che una nube ingrata; Veggo la selva e il monte

Source: Nuovamente composte opre di musica vocale, 1735

Rebecca Miles, recordera; Stéphanie-Marie Degano, violinb; Jonathan Cohen, cello; Peter Whelan, bassoon; Judith Evans, double bass; Mónica Pustilnik, lute, guitar; Siobhán Armstrong, harp; Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord, organ

Nicola Porpora was one of the most famous composers and singing teachers of the 18th century. Until fairly recently his oeuvre has been given relatively little attention. But that has changed: in recent years various discs have been released with sacred and secular vocal works. In 2008 Hyperion released a disc with four cantatas for soprano. One of them was from a collection which Porpora published in 1735 with a dedication to Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales. This collection includes 12 cantatas, six for soprano and six for alto. The latter have been recorded by Iestyn Davies.

Nicola Porpora was born in Naples, where he attended the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo from age 10. In 1708 he received his first commission to compose an opera which was received positively. But in the next 10 years or so the development of his career was impeded by the towering presence of Alessandro Scarlatti. In 1715 he started a second career as singing teacher when he was appointed as maestro at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio. Among his most famous pupils were the castratos Farinelli and Caffarello. The mention of the former is particularly relevant as during his time in London he was in close contact with the Prince of Wales. "The royal prince of these parts (...) does me countless favours of which I should never have dreamt, and from him I expect much of advantage to myself, since we are always together, he playing the cello and I singing." It is not impossible that he sang some of those cantatas which were printed in 1735, especially as some of these have an obbligato part for the cello, the instrument which the Prince played with such enthusiasm. One example is Or che una nube ingrata.

At that time Porpora was also in London. In 1733 he had travelled to England at the invitation of a group of nobles who wanted to set up an opera company which was to compete with Handel's. In December 1733 the Opera of the Nobility opened its first season with Porpora's Arianna in Naxo. Farinelli also took part in performances of operas by Porpora: his London début was in Polifemo which premiered in 1735. But the Opera of the Nobility didn't succeed in matching the success of Handel's opera company. In the summer of 1736 Porpora left London. His last composition written there was again for the Prince of Wales, the serenata La festa d'Imeneo, to celebrate his wedding.

The six cantatas performed here are all for solo voice and basso continuo. Some have arias with an obbligato part for the cello, as was already mentioned. Destatevi, o pastori has an obbligato part for a treble instrument. In the two recitatives and the second aria this part is played at the violin, in the first aria at the recorder. I don't quite understand why the treble part has been divided over two different instruments. All cantatas follow the same pattern with two pairs of recitative and aria. As Porpora was a famous singing teacher his methods are of particular interest as they tell us which aspects of singing he considered particularly important.

Kurt Markstrom, in the article on Porpora in New Grove, writes: "The anecdote about Caffarelli singing the same page of vocal exercises for five years suggests that Porpora put a great deal of emphasis on pure technique. Not only were his teaching methods continued by several of his pupils, most notably Domenico Corri, but also the solfeggi attributed to him and published in various 19th-century editions were used by generations of singers, creating a living pedagogical tradition rather like that of Liszt for the piano. The basic principle was the development of absolute control of the voice, particularly with regard to agility, dynamics and colouring, through the use of regular and rigorous exercises."

Listening to the cantatas on this disc from this perspective I was rather disappointed by the overall result. There is definitely some agility, but I don't find Iestyn Davies very responsive to the various nuances in the texts and the way Porpora has set them to music. In the second recitative and aria from Oh se fosse il mio core his singing is too soft-edged. And in the recitative 'Tornerò fra le gregge' from Destatevi, o pastori his singing is too feeble. The following aria 'Silvio amante disperato' is much better. The best part of this disc is the cantata Veggo la selva e il monte. The sweet character of Iestyn Davies voice suites the text and the music best. Otherwise I missed some sharp edges in his voice, and I also regret his too frequent vibrato. Two aspects of Porpora's aesthetic ideal, dynamics and colouring, seem not to be Davies' strenghts. Moreover, the recitatives are mostly rhythmically too strict.

Or che una nube ingrata has been recorded in 1974 by René Jacobs, and his performance is definitely preferable to Iestyn Davies's. Otherwise there are no alternatives, as far as I know. That makes this disc welcome, even though these performances are less than ideal.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Iestyn Davies

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