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Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): Nocturnes for the Dead & Vesper Psalms

[A] "Notturni per i Defunti"
Monica Piccinini, soprano; Romina Basso, contralto
La Stagione Armonica (Sergio Balestracci); Dolci & Tempesta
Dir: Stefano Demicheli

rec: Nov 2006, Aymavilles, Église Saint-Léger
Fuga Libera - FUG526 (© 2006) (69'21")

[B] "Vêpres Vénitiennes"
Isabelle Poulenard, soprano; Guillemette Laurens, mezzosoprano; Jean-Marc Andrieu, recorder; Étienne Mangot, cello
Choeur Éclats (François Terrieux); Les Passions
Dir: Jean-Marc Andrieu

rec: June 25 - 28, 2007, Toulouse, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0202185-07 (© 2007) (68'55")

[A] Nicola Antonio PORPORA: Notturni per i defunti; Nicola FIORENZA (fl 1726-1764): Sinfonia a due violini e basso in f minor; Sinfonia a violoncello solo con violini e basso in G
[B] Nicola Antonio PORPORA: De profundis; Laetatus sum; Nisi Dominus; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in F (RV 410); Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in a minor (RV 108)

[A] [D&T] Brunello Gorla, Gabriele Rocchetti, horn; Nicholas Anthony Robinson, Mauro Lopes Ferreira, violin; Marco Testori, cello; Paolo Zuccheri, violone; Andrea Friggi, organ
[B] [LP] Flavio Losco, Nirina Bougès, violin; Marie-Laure Besson, viola; Étienne Mangot, cello; Jean-Paul Talvard, double bass; Ronaldo Correia de Lima Lopes, theorbo; Yvan Garcia, harpsichord, organ, claviorganum

Nicola Antonio Porpora was born and died in Naples, but in between he had quite an adventurous life which brought him as far as London. Here he became mainly known as an opera composer and especially as the main rival of Handel. But there is more to Porpora, and as so often his name is better known than his music. Therefore the release of these two discs is most welcome.

His first compositions were operas, but it seems his career as a composer didn't come off that soon, probably because of Alessandro Scarlatti's dominance. But he had several jobs as maestro di cappella, first of Prince Philipp of Hesse-Darmstadt, the general of the Austrian army in Naples, and then of the Portuguese ambassador in Rome. He also began to act as music teacher. Nobody less than the castrato Farinelli was one of his pupils. Solfeggi attributed to him were used as late as the 19th century.

Porpora started to make a name for himself as an opera composer. He travelled to Austria and Germany, but his operas didn't make a great impression there. In 1725 he settled in Venice where he became maestro of the Ospedale degl'Incurabili. Somehow Porpora always seems to have been involved in some kind of rivalry. In Venice there was a stiff competition between Porpora and Leonardo Vinci, and after the latter's death in 1730 it was Johann Adolf Hasse who developed into his main rival. So when Porpora resigned from his post in 1733 and travelled to London, there was nothing unusual in his developing rivalry with Handel. But in this rivalry he wasn't able to win; in 1737 Handel's opera company collapsed, but so did Porpora's. At that time Porpora had already left London for Venice. In the next years he was moving between Venice and Rome, worked in Dresden and Vienna. In the Austrian capital one of his pupils was Haydn, who wrote that he had learned "the true fundamentals of composition from the celebrated Herr Porpora". His life ended in the city where he was born, in Naples, where he was appointed maestro di cappella at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. After he had quit from this post and also resigned from teaching he spent the rest of his life in considerable poverty.

In 1744 Porpora was appointed as singing teacher at the Ospedale dei Derelitti, one of Venice's conservatories. The three motets which Jean-Marc Andrieu has recorded date from 1744 and its choral parts reflect the performance practice at the Ospedale. The tutti are set for 4 voices: 2 sopranos and 2 altos, which means that they were meant to be sung by girls only. And, like in many of Vivaldi's sacred music, the solo parts are also for soprano and alto. Talking about Vivaldi, as an opera composer he felt the increasingly heavy competition of the Neapolitan opera school. This style is very much the trademark of Porpora's sacred music as well. There are strong reminiscences of the Stabat mater by another Neapolitan, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. But Porpora goes some steps further: his motets are unashamedly operatic, and that can be hard to swallow. Even where one would expect some restraint, like in De profundis one hears the soloists singing as if they are in the opera. There are many coloraturas in all three motets, and at several moments the soloists are singing cadenzas. I am not sure to what extent Porpora has indicated the addition of cadenzas, but I think they are totally appropriate, considering the character of these motets. There are not only coloraturas in the solo parts, though: they also appear in some choral sections, for instance in the doxology of De profundis. And, just to underline the operatic nature of the motets, some passages are set as recitativo accompagnato in pretty dramatic fashion.

The performers have understood the nature of these motets and don't hold back in their interpretations. These motets are operatic and are treated like that. Both Isabelle Poulenard and Guillemette Laurens give very fine performances, brilliant and virtuosic, without crossing the line of good taste. Only in the cadenza in the 'Sustinuit anima mea' from De profundis I think Guillemette Laurens goes too far. The choir gives also splendid performances, and the instrumental ensemble shows its qualities not only in the vocal items, but also in the two concertos by Vivaldi. Although there is some connection between Vivaldi and Porpora, I had preferred some other vocal pieces - or instrumental works - by Porpora, considering the lack of recordings of his oeuvre. Having said that, both concertos are given excellent performances, and Jean-Marc Andrieu and Étienne Mangot are brilliant players.

One would expect a more restrained approach to the Notturni per i defunti (the Nocturnes for the Dead), and that is indeed the case - but only a little. There are many uncertainties about when exactly Porpora has written them and when they have been performed. To a large extent this is caused by the lack of exact information about his whereabouts during the years 1737 - when he returned from London - and 1744, when he was officially appointed at the Ospedale dei Derelitti. During these years he was in Venice, Naples, Dresden and Vienna. What seems certain is that these Nocturnes were performed at least twice, in 1743 and 1760, both times in Naples. It could well be that they were performed before 1743 as well: when the performances in 1743 took place Porpora was in Venice again, so it is plausible to assume that the Nocturnes were originally composed some years earlier, when Porpora was in Naples. We know who were the singers in 1760: four soprano castratos and five alto castratos.

The Notturni are divided into three sections, Notturno Primo, Secondo and Terzo respectively. Each Notturno consists of three Lezioni, for a solo voice with strings and bc, with additional horns in some of the Lezioni.

The character of the Nocturnes is not fundamentally different from the psalm settings of the other recording. And it is really hard sometimes to accept that the rather sombre verses of these Nocturnes are set in a rather operatic way, with arias - although without da capo -, ariosos and - in some of the Nocturnes - as recitativi accompagnati. Like in the psalms there are cadenzas in some of the Nocturnes as well.

Every Lezione is followed by a responsory, set for choir with a solo voice in some of the Verses. These responsories have been reconstructed. With the exception of one responsory the vocal parts have been lost, but the instrumental parts have survived. The existing vocal parts allowed to reconstruct the other responsories, and that was also made possible as the surviving material shows that the Lezioni and the responsories are musically intertwined.

The performances are of the same high standard as those on the disc with psalm settings. Monica Piccinini and Romina Basso are both seasoned performers of baroque operas and that is a clear advantage here. They give excellent interpretations of the vocal parts and sing with passion and much expression. During the Lezioni the sombre mood is getting stronger and the last Nocturnes are full of despair. This is enhanced by the scoring: the two last Lezioni are set for alto, and Romina Basso catches their character very well. The choir and the ensemble perform at the same level. In between two instrumental sonatas are played, composed by the little-known Nicola Fiorenza, a violinist from Naples who was teacher of the violin at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto from 1743 to 1762, the same institution where Porpora was maestro di cappella in the latest stage of his life. These are nice pieces and well played by Dolce & Tempesta.

Despite the character of Porpora's music - not exactly what I like to hear on sacred texts - I strongly recommend both recordings, as they give an excellent impression of Porpora's style and contain splendid performances of his music. Just a note of warning: the booklet of the disc of Ligia Digital is only in French. There are no English translations of either programme notes or lyrics.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Choeur Éclats
Les Passions
La Stagione Armonica
Dolce & Tempesta

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