Durante: Neapolitan Christmas Vol 2
Last year at this time (received just before Christmas but not to appear until several months into the year), I reviewed the first disc of Neapolitan Christmas music by Francesco Durante recorded by the Kölner Akademie under Michael Willens. My recommendation at that time was that this sort of music, commonplace in Naples during the 18th century, ought to be made more available. After another season of the usual Messiah overload and unending Archangelo Corelli Christmas Concerto performances on the radio (along with the other usual popular and traditional seasonal detritus), it was good to obtain this sequel, one sure to provide a measure of novelty as well as a proper complement to the holidays.
Durante, one of the major figures of galant Naples and a teacher to many a great Classical era Italian composer (Pergolesi, Piccinni, among others), was himself thoroughly immersed in the vibrant Neapolitan musical scene, of which the Christmas season was particularly favored for a wide variety of works. Here, conductor Willens continues his quest to revive Durante’s contributions through four sacred works, including a traditional pastorale, a sort of short cantata consisting of an introductory chorus, a pair of recitatives, an aria, and a final duet. The “brief” Laudate pueri , a single movement setting of Psalm 113, was entitled “il Grottesco” by Abbate Fortunato Santini in the 19th century, and although the name has stuck, there is certainly nothing “grotesque” about the lyrical piece, so one doesn’t really know what Santini was thinking. The Mass is typical of the period in Naples, with a setting of only the Kyrie and Gloria, although each is subdivided into individual movements. Here, Durante expands his spare string orchestra to include pairs of horns (in the two “Kyrie eleison” movements and the final “Cum sancto spiritu” fugue), oboes, and trumpets (in, you guessed it, the Gloria movement, though Durante uses both horns and trumpets in the Quoniam), offering a rich texture that foreshadows that of the Classical period.
The pastoral Cito Pastores is mainly homophonic, with the gently susurrating rhythms of a compound meter Siciliano. The opening aria is in a lengthy, strophic form that stays mainly in the principal key, clearly meant for meditative thought. The soprano aria that follows (after a short recitative) has light coloratura for the voice, nothing especially daunting, but rather nicely flowing. The final duet has the soprano and alto beginning in a soft minor key, but rapidly changing to Vivaldian parallel thirds with the final text “Gloria sit in caelo.” The Laudate pueri begins with a rather stark unison scalar descent which goes beyond the octave to the third below, a neat and rather distinctive harmonic twist, and while the bulk of the work is a series of nicely homophonic lines, the “Sicut erat” begins contrapuntally but devolves quickly into a series of neat suspensions with antiphonal effects. The Litany is highly reminiscent of Vivaldi in its parallel thirds and suspensions above an insistent ostinato that changes the harmony constantly. Here the purity of the vocal line, now with the soprano and alto echoing each other, now in tandem, overshadows the lighter string accompaniment to give a more ethereal sound. Finally, the Mass is a kaleidoscope of various early styles, with the syncopated violins above the chordal sound of the horns and voices in the Kyrie contrasting with the very severe fugue of the Christe. The Gloria, with its melismatic opening in the voices and echoes from the oboes, strings, and trumpets, sounds again very Vivaldian, but the suspensive “Et in terra pax hominibus” is a solemn and darker interlude. In many of the movements, such as the “Domine deus” and “Que sedes,” one hears echoes of Giovanni Pergolesi’s famed Stabat Mater , in one instance I seemed to hear a direct quote (but who is quoting from whom is another issue entirely, of course). The interplay between the horns, trumpets, and oboes in the “Quoniam” could have been written by Handel, although the insistent trills that conclude the introduction in both brass instruments add an element of novelty.
The Kölner Akademie has reduced its forces for this disc down to a bare minimum. For the orchestra, only pairs of violins and one on a part for the lower strings, while the soloists also double as the chorus. This lends the music a rather more transparent sound. Although there is plenty of opportunity for mistepping, the clarity and careful attention to intonation lend these pieces a perfect balance. Willens, who edited the Mass and Litany, keeps his tempos moving but at a sedate pace that is rather closely aligned to the precise phrasing of the music. Both tenor Alberto ter Doest and bass Thilo Dahlmann have relatively little to do, since female voices predominate. Monica Piccinini has a clear and accurate voice which blends nicely both with her equally adept partner, alto/mezzo-soprano Ursula Eittinger, and the reduced ensemble. This gives the recording a well-integrated quality that lets Durante’s creativity speak for itself. Even if this were not Christmas music, this disc would come highly recommended as a part of any early Classical period collection. It is a must for a truly memorable musical experience.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Catalog Number: 777734-2
Composer: Francesco Durante
Conductor: Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble: Cologne Academy
Performer: Alberto ter Doest, Christina Kuhne, Monica Piccinini, Thilo Dahlmann