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José DE NEBRA (1702 - 1768): Requiem

Coro Victoria; Schola Antiqua (Juan Carlos Asensio); La Madrileña
Dir: José Antonio Montaño

rec: March 12 - 15, 2018, Madrid, Basilica Pontificia de San Miguel
Pan Classics - PC 10412 (© 2018) (60'24")
Liner-notes: E/D/ES; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Oficio y Misa de difuntos

[CV] [I] Elia Casanova, Mmanon Chauvin, soprano; Hugo Bolívar, alto; Jesús Navarro, tenor
[II] Cristina Teijeiro, soprano; Beverley Green, contralto; Emiliano Cano, tenor; Pablo Acosta, bass
[LM] Antonio Campillo, Liza Patrón, transverse flute; Beatriz Amezúa, Isaac M. Pulet, Ignacio Ramal, Abelardo Martín, Adrián Pineda, violin; José I. Sanz de Galdeano, Lola Fernández, viola; Guillermo Martínez, cello; Ismael Campanero, double bass; Eyal Streett, bassoon; Sara Águeda, harp; Carlos Orejas, organ

José de Nebra is one of many Spanish composers of the 18th century, who are more or less forgotten. Among them, he is probably one of the better-known. Some of his music has been recorded before, but to my knowledge the recording of his Requiem is a world premiere.

Nebra was born in Calatayud into a family of musicians. He received his first musical training from his father who was the organist of Cuenca cathedral and teacher of the choirboys. He would later be promoted to maestro de capilla of the cathedral. Two of José's brothers were also musicians and worked as organists in various cathedrals. José moved to Madrid in 1719, where he worked as organist in the convent of las Descalzas Reales. In 1722 he entered the service of the Duke of Osuna. He came into contact with the best musicians of the time, and started to write music for the theatre. He composed a zarzuela for the inauguration of the new Teatro del Príncipe. It is known that he wrote more than 70 theatrical works, of which only 13 have been preserved.

In 1736 Nebra was appointed organist of the Royal Chapel. Music life received a boost after the crowning of Fernando VI and Bárbara de Braganza in 1746. The Queen engaged two major musicians at the court: her harpsichord teacher Domenico Scarlatti and the famous castrato Farinelli; the latter became the director of the court opera. Nebra was second harpsichordist of the court orchestra, in addition to his post as first organist of the chapel. In 1751 he was appointed as the chapel's vice-maestro. In this capacity he had the duty of replacing the church music which had been lost in a fire at the royal palace in 1734. He showed his inclination for Italian music by suggesting the purchase of compositions by Neapolitan composers as Alessandro Scarlatti and Leonardo Leo. He also started to compose religious music himself, and abandoned his writing of music for the theatre.

Nebra's sacred oeuvre comprises more than 170 works: masses, Vespers, villancicos and responsories. The Oficio y Misa de difuntos were first performed on 29 August 1758 at the funeral of Queen Bárbara, in the church of the convent Salesas Reales in Madrid, founded by the Queen herself. Why Nebra was commissioned to compose the music for her funeral is not known; after all, he was just the vice-maestro of the chapel. José Antonio Montaño, in his liner-notes, suggests that they must have had a close relationship. The work was performed again in 1759 at the funeral of Bárbara's husband, King Ferdinando VI. It attests to the great appreciation of Nebra's composition that it continued to be performed at the occasion of royal funerals, and on the annual All Souls' Day, well within the 19th century.

The scoring of the Office of the Dead and Requiem is for eight voices in two choirs of different line-up (SSAT-SATB), two transverse flutes, strings and basso continuo. In the bass, the performers have added a bassoon, which participates to good effect in particular in the Ofertorio. The work opens with the Oficio, comprising four sections. The first is the Invitatorio, beginning with the text "Regem cui omnia vivunt, venite adoremus" ("The King, unto whom all things do live, come let us adore"), which is sung a capella and repeated at the end. In between the Schola Antiqua sings a number of verses in plainchant; the words "venite adoremus" regularly return. Next is the first penitential psalm, Domine ne in furore tuo (Psalm 6), for tutti with solos for bass, who sings the plainchant cantus firmus. Two lessons follow: Parce mihi Domine ("Spare me, Lord, for my days are as nothing"), scored for soprano solo, and Taedet animam meam ("My soul is weary of my life"). This is for tutti and includes quite some chromaticism.

These four pieces include two features of this work as a whole: the dominant role of counterpoint, and an expressive use of harmony.

The Requiem Mass then begins with the Introito (Requiem aeternam), followed by the Kyrie. The third section is the sequens Dies irae. The orchestra opens with repeated figures, which are a basic element of this section. They imitate tremolos, in the 17th and 18th centuries often used to express extreme fear and stress. On the word "mors stupebit et natura", the strings play pizzicato, probably imitating funeral bells. Next are the Lacrimosa and an intimate Pie Jesu. The Ofertorio includes some passages that are sung in unison, probably a reference to plainchant. At two moments, the music focuses on the lower end of the work's range, for instance on the words "ne cadant in obscurum", where the bassoon plays a prominent role. Next is the Sanctus, followed by a motet, Circumdederunt me. It is full of dissonances, inspired by the text: "The sorrows of death have encompassed me: and the perils of hell have found me. I met with trouble and sorrow. Turn, O my soul, into thy rest: for the Lord hath been bountiful to thee." The Agnus Dei is then of a completely different character, expressing the expectation of eternal rest, which is then confirmed in the closing Comunion: Lux aeterna - "May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord".

Nebra's Oficio y Misa de difuntos is a compelling work which is quite different, in its texture and in the use of harmony, from other pieces of this kind. This work deserves more attention and seems a worthy alternative to other Requiem masses. The dominant role of counterpoint is in line with the overall conservative taste in sacred music in Spain, but harmonically it is anything but looking backwards. The present recording has its origin in a commission by the city of Madrid to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Nebra in 2018. It also supported this recording, and one can only be thankful for that. The performance is excellent, and does full justice to the expression of this work. Only now and then I noted a slight vibrato in some of the voices in the vocal ensemble, but it hardly disturbed me.

The booklet includes informative liner-notes by the musical director, as well as the lyrics. Unfortunately, English translations are omitted, but all the texts can be found at the internet.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Coro Victoria
Schola Antiqua
La Madrileña

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