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Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): "Passio - Music on the Passion of Christ"

Stile Galante
Dir: Stefano Aresi

rec: August 2010, Quistro, Chiesa di San Lorenzo Martire
Pan Classics - PC 10243 (© 2011) (72'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Misererebdeg; Nicola Antonio PORPORA: Duetto I: Crimen Adae quantum constataceg [1]; Duetto II: Rigate lacrimisbceg [1]; Duetto III: Mortis causa tu fuistiabeg [1]; Duetto IV: In hoc vexillo Crucisabeg [1]; Duetto V: Tamquam agnus immolaturadeg [1]; Duetto VI: Ab imo pectoreaceg [1]; Nicola Antonio PORPORA, arr Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832): Sonata V in g minor (fuga)f [2]; Sonata VI in C (fuga diatonico enarmonico cromatico)f [2]

Source: [1] Sei duetti latini sulla passione di nostro signore Gesł Cristo, 1754; [2] Sonate, 1754/Muzio Clementi, Selection of Practical Harmony for the Organ or Piano Forte, 1801

Emanuela Gallia, Francesca Cassinarib, soprano; Marina De Liso, contraltoc; Fulvio Bettini, baritoned; Ludovico Takeshi Minasi, celloe; Andrea Friggi, harpsichordf, organg

Nicolo Antonio Porpora was one of the most celebrated composers of his time. He was also a prominent representative of the Neapolitan school whose style disseminated through Europe from the 1730s onwards. He was even more famous as a singing teacher. Among his students were two of the most celebrated castratos of the 18th century, Farinelli and Caffarelli.

Porpora worked in various places in Europe, like Milan, London and Rome. In 1747 he was in Dresden where he acted as the singing teacher of Maria Antonia Walpurgis, the Electoral Princess of Saxony. In 1748 he was appointed Kapellmeister, but he didn't remain very long in this position as in 1750 his rival Johann Adolf Hasse was appointed Ober-Kapellmeister. Porpora was pensioned off in 1752 and moved to Vienna. It is here that he composed the duets which are the subject of this disc.

Apparently Porpora didn't have any hard feelings for being dumped in favour of Hasse. The duets, written in 1754, were "to be sung on Lent Fridays in the Chapel of His Most Serene Highness, the Electoral Prince of Saxony". They form a cycle on Latin texts; the author is not mentioned in the booklet, so I assume he has remained anonymous. These pieces found a good reception and were even performed in the 19th century. That doesn't completely surprise as solfeggi which are attributed to Porpora were still used as well.

The six duets are especially interesting because they show strong differences in style. The Duetto I is the most old-fashioned, and written in the stile antico, which its characteristic imitation between the two voices.
A feature of the Duetto II is the frequent parallel motion of the voices, which Stefano Aresi calls "an evident initial reference to the model of the 'French' duet, as carefully defined by Johann Mattheson (...)".
Duetto III is full of chromaticism, and that can well be explained by the text: "The cause of Jesus Christ's death was you, O mortal. Jesus' death was your salvation, hope and life. All nations, bemoan his death, and share Mary's pain. The sorrow is as infinite as your fate is great".
Duetto IV is very different, and the most Neapolitan in style. It doesn't withhold Porpora to write strong dissonances on 'sordes' (filth [of our sins]). The text concentrates on Christ's glory through his death: "In this signal of the cross the day of salvation abides" and this explains that the two voices imitate the sound of trumpets.
In Duetto V we meet Porpora the opera composer. It is the most dramatic of the six, with soprano and bass singing in opposing veins, the former "pathetic", the latter in a mood of "anger". The opposition of a high and a low voice makes this contrast all the stronger. Again the character of this duet is inspired by the text: "Like a lamb is sacrificed, like a thief led through the crowd, Christ (...) suffered death bearing all this for us".
In Duetto VI the organ not only plays the basso continuo, but also a concertante role. Porpora even indicated the registration. The two voices frequently sing in parallel motion with the organ. The A section is full of dissonances: "Sigh from the depths of your heart, wicked sinner. For the creator of life has endured death on the cross for you".

The duets are interspersed by two fugues from two sonatas for violin and bc which are part of a set of twelve sonatas which were written in the same year. They were dedicated to Porpora's former patroness and pupil Maria Antonia Walpurgis. The are included here because of the stylistic connection to the duets. In his dedication Porpora stated that he wanted to show his ability to write in various styles, "ancient and Italian, modern and French, mixing them and dedicating two different attitudes (conservative and free) to the two sections in which the volume is divided". The two fugues are from the sonatas V and VI which belong to the first part, in which the ancient style dominates. They are played here in an arrangement for keyboard by Muzio Clementi who included them in his Selection of Practical Harmony of 1801.

The disc ends with an anonymous setting of Miserere mei Deus, one of the penitential psalms which were sung during Lent. It is a rather simple and straightforward composition in which only the odd verses are set. The even verses are performed in plainchant with an additional basso continuo. This is not included in the piece itself, but added by Stefano Aresi who used a Miserere by Leonardo Leo - another composer from Naples - as an example. The soprano and the baritone sing the odd verses, whereas the latter performs the even verses.

There is no mention in the booklet of the organ used in this recording. But it doesn't sound like a small chamber organ, but rather a larger instrument. This fits well with the growing tendency to use larger organs for the performance of the basso continuo in sacred vocal works. The singing is of high quality, and the voices mostly blend rather well. Emanuela Galli is a bit of a problem as now and then she uses more vibrato than is desirable. But there is certainly no lack in expression in the way the six duets are performed. Francesca Cassinari and Fulvio Bettini give a fine performance of the anonymous Miserere.

The playing of the two fugues at the harpsichord is historically speaking not indefensible, but at the same time not very plausible as Muzio Clementi was a famous player of the fortepiano and at the time the Selection of Practical Harmony was printed the fortepiano had largely overshadowed the harpsichord. Andrea Friggi plays them well, though.

All in all, this is a rather unconventional, but historically very intriguing and musically captivating disc. As relatively little Passion music from 18th-century Italy is available on disc this production is an important addition to the discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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