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Leonardo LEO (1694 - 1744): "Sacred Works"

Ulrike Hofbauer, sopranoa
ensemble &cetera
Dir: Ulrike Hofbauer

rec: Sept 12 - 15, 2014, Drebber (D), Marienkirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875057442 (© 2016) (73'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Leo, Toccatas

Francesco DURANTE (1684-1755): Concerto a quartetto No. 4 in e minor; Leonardo LEO: Il figliuol prodigoa; Lezioni del Giovedi Santo (Lezione I)a; Salve Regina in c minora; Salve Regina in Fa; Toccata No. 2 in g minorb; Toccata No. 14 in c minorb

Peter Barczi, Eva Borhi, violin; Matthieu Camilleri, viola; Bernadette Köbele, cello; Julian Behr, theorbo; Markus Hünniger, harpsichord (solob), organ

There is certainly no lack of interest in music life in Naples in the late 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries. The number of discs with Neapolitan repertoire which are released with great regularity bear witness to that. In 2019 the Festival Early Music Utrecht will be entirely devoted to Naples. It was here that the galant idiom which was to become very influential across Europe, was born in the early decades of the 18th century. It expressed itself in opera - Vivaldi experienced its competition like no other - but also in sacred and instrumental music.The present disc brings together two of the leading composers from the second quarter of the 18th century who had one thing in common: they mixed the modern galant idiom with the contrapuntal tradition of the 17th century which was also very much part of the idiom of the leading composer of the decades around 1700: Alessandro Scarlatti. And in their oeuvre opera is also never far away.

This disc focuses on Leonardo Leo. He was a pupil of the famous Conservatorio S Maria della Pietà dei Turchini, which he entered in 1709. Probably his first composition, a sacred drama, was performed in the conservatory in 1712 and again at the palace of the viceroy which suggests it was a great success. It was an early indication of Leo's stature as a composer of operas and sacred music. He wasn't only composing operas for Naples, as he received commissions from other cities as well, such as Venice, Rome, Florence and Milan. In Naples he had to take a backseat for a while when he was overshadowed by Vinci and Hasse. But when the former died and the latter departed he became the main composer in Naples.

The programme opens and ends with settings of the Salve Regina, one of the four Marian antiphons, sung at Compline in the time from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. These two settings are in c minor and in F respectively. The former dates from before October 1737; the other has only survived in 19th-century manuscripts. Both are divided into six sections but these are treated differently. In the F major version the second verse, comprising just one phrase: "Ad te clamamus, exsules Filii Evae", takes three minutes and includes much coloratura, like an opera aria. In contrast, this phrase lasts less than one minute in the version in c minor. It is the other way round in the penultimate verse, 'Et Jesum benedictum'. In the former version the third verse, 'Ad te suspiramus', includes a chromatic ascending line. In both versions Leo makes use of pauses in the vocal part to express the emotion of the text, on words like "suspiramus", "gementes" and "flentes".

The best-known settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah from the baroque period are the Leçons de Ténèbres by French composers, such as François Couperin and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. However, Neapolitan composers also set these texts. The best-known are from the pen of Alessandro Scarlatti, and before him such pieces were written by the likes of Cristofaro Caresana and Gaetano Veneziano. The structure of these settings is not different from the French Leçons: every verse opens with a Hebrew letter which is set in the form of a vocalise. But the Lezioni by the composers I just mentioned are much more dramatic than their French counterparts. Leo's Lezione I from the Lezioni del Giovedì Santo is not so much dramatic but gives the singer the opportunity to shine; in that respect it is not different from the motets by Italian composers of the time, such as Vivaldi. In particular in the vocalises the compass of the solo part is much wider than in the earlier Neapolitan settings, and certainly those in the French Leçons. This Lezione also includes a recitativic passage.

The most operatic piece is the cantata, Il figliuol prodigo, about the parable of the lost son from the gospel according to St Luke (ch 15). Dinko Fabris, in his liner-notes, states that its text is taken from that gospel but that is not the case. The soprano also does not tell the story of the prodigal son. In fact, the parable is used merely as a stepping stone to express a moral. The first recitative opens with this line: "Having journeyed far from his native land, and wickedly wasted all his possessions, a prodigal son returns to his father". But then it continues: "You are that son, in the grip of mortal error, facing the divine council". The first aria says: "Return to your Father, to God the Father, as a humble son, and ask his forgiveness". The next recitative goes on in the same vein: "He who cherishes love for you, has a merciful heart". The last aria is a prayer: "Dear Lord, in my suffering I beg you to forgive me". The cantata, scored for soprano, two violins and bc, is highly expressive, right from the start: the first section is an instrumental sinfonia with the indication andante which sets the tone, for instance through the use of chromaticism. The two arias are truely operatic and technically virtuosic.

Leo didn't compose many instrumental works; the best-known compositions from his pen in this department are the six cello concertos. This disc includes two toccatas from a collection of 14; Fabris assumes that these were written for didactic purposes. The pieces played here have some improvisational traces. They are quite interesting and made me curious about the others.

Francesco Mancini is another Neapolitan composer who has received some interest in recent years. Among his best-known works are concertos for recorder and strings from the so-called Manoscritto di Napoli 1725 and the eight Concerti a quartetto. The latter are a clear demonstration of the composer's preference for counterpoint which is also a feature of his sacred music. This disc includes the Concerto No. 4 in e minor which is in four movements; notable is the second movement which is called Ricercare del 4° tono, a clear reference to the heydays of polyphony.

The cantata Il figliuol prodigo and the Lezione I appear here for the first time on disc. Both are very worthwhile compositions, and I hope that one day the complete Lezioni will be available on disc. The two settings of the Salve Regina are also very fine works. Ulrike Hofbauer has appeared on various recordings as a soloist but this seems to be her first recording with her ensemble &cetera; as such it is a most impressive debut. That not only goes for the choice of repertoire but also for the interpretation. Hofbauer has a very beautiful voice which is pre-eminently suited for this kind of repertoire. Her singing is exemplary and her interpretation exactly right; she brings to the music what it asks for. The performance of the recitatives is often a weakness in this kind of repertoire, but not here: Hofbauer takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom which gives them a natural flow. There is no lack of technical bravura but she never forgets what the texts are about. The expression in these pieces is explored to the full. She receives excellent support from the instrumentalists which also deliver a fine performance of Durante's Concerto in e minor. Markus Hünninger deserves praise for his spirited performance of the two toccatas.

In short, this is a disc to treasure.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Ulrike Hofbauer
ensemble &cetera

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