Jose de Nebra: Amor aumenta el valor / Los Musicos de su Alteza

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NEBRA Amor aumenta el valor • Luis Antonio González, cond; Olalla Alemán ( Horacio ); María Eugenia Boix ( Clelia ); Marta Infante ( Porsena...

NEBRA Amor aumenta el valor Luis Antonio González, cond; Olalla Alemán ( Horacio ); María Eugenia Boix ( Clelia ); Marta Infante ( Porsena ); Agnieszka Grzywacz ( Livio ); Soledad Cardoso ( Porcia ); Ana María Otxoa ( Calfurnia ); José Pizarro ( Mimo ); Músicos de su Alteza ALPHA 171 (79:31 Text and Translation)

José de Nebra (1702–68) only sporadically appears in these pages, much as you’d expect of a composer who is seldom recorded. Yet during his lifetime, he was among the most celebrated of composers in his native Spain: principal organist at the royal chapel, and commissioned to compose a new repertoire for it after the archive was destroyed in 1734; deputy director and head of the royal choir school; Ferdinand VI’s choice as harpsichord teacher to the young prince. It was Ferdinand’s chronic inability to pay wages on time (in fairness, caused by the overweening military ambitions of his father, Philip V) that led Nebra to lavish much attention on the public theater, where he was highly successful. He composed well over 70 secular and sacred stage works between 1723 and 1751, with a single, final piece in 1761. Many received in excess of 20 well-attended first seasons, at a time when Handel was pleased to secure half that. Which isn’t to suggest a comparison upon merit, but to demonstrate Nebra’s great popularity.

Early in his career, in 1728, the kings of Spain and Portugal celebrated a double betrothal by proxy between their houses, and required an opera, Amor aumenta el valor , to add luster. It was not atypical at the time to engage multiple composers for one, though the arrangement of one composer per act was a little unusual. Giacomo Facco was given the prologue and third act to write, while Filippo Falconi had act II. Nebra was chosen to compose act I—a notable honor, considering that he was a quarter of a century younger than his colleagues. Only the prologue and act I survive, of which González chose to record the latter, citing its superiority to Facco’s efforts.

González also claims Nebra displays “complete mastery of the international musical, of Italian origin, that prevailed at the time.” Based solely on this example consisting of nearly 80 minutes of music, I tentatively agree. The recitative style is not unexpectedly conservative, resembling early Alessandro Scarlatti more than such contemporary Italians as Leo, Vinci, or Galuppi. But his arias, too, look back to the endless round of influential Roman cantatas commissioned by cardinals and bishops, and composed at the turn of the 18th century in response to Pope Innocent XII’s ban on all theatrical performances. There’s a certain kinship of origin with Handel, again, in the way Nebra uses a heavy, reiterative tread in “Adios, prenda de mi amor,” to depict reluctance and an equally heavy emotional weight, as Horacio bids a final farewell to the woman he must abandon to a rival. “Galanura, qué locura,” a cynical, Despina-like piece about selecting a lover for his wealth, recalls several Handel heroines in its skipping rhythm and flippant theme—much like Cleopatra before she falls for Caesar. Nebra rises to considerable dramatic power in Horacio’s “Ay, amor ay, Clelia mia,” a lament in prison for the hero’s love, with recorders tracing an imitative line that resembles a sympathetic Greek chorus.

I am less sanguinary about González’s remark that Nebra didn’t turn “his back on the Spanish tradition.” Presumably that’s true in other stage works of his, but only the rhythm and the brief stop-time harmony of a single piece, “Sopla el bóreas irritado,” indicates a slight Spanish folk influence in Amor aumenta el valor . The other example that might be put forward, from Mimo’s “Sopla hacia allí,” includes a modal ornament on the fifth usually associated in the late 19th- and 20th-century Spanish folk music with expressions of keening lament, but the piece in question is an archetypal aria di furore , so its single appearance seems out of place. I can’t help wondering whether it was a modern addition.

The performances are a mix, though never very bad, and in one instance very good. Mezzo Olalla Alemán supplies a fast vibrato, focused voice, and a beautifully floated tone. She manages her figurations and divisions well. Soledad Cardoso sings her display aria with distinction, if with little sense of awareness for its dramatic values; but then, González pushes the tempo too much for her comfort, something he also does as well in “Ay, amor ay, Clelia mia,” muting to a degree its theatrical effectiveness. María Eugenia Boix hits all the notes, but only sounds secure and free in her upper range. Her enunciation is also poor. Ana Maria Otxoa by contrast is strongest in her chest voice, with quavering tone and poor breath support as she rises. Agnieszka Grzywacz is slightly tremulous throughout her range though always stylish, with a clear sense of how to phrase, excellent enunciation, and a fine awareness of this music as theater. Contralto Marta Infante has a curious mixture of a fast vibrato with a white tone on held notes. She sings her figurations well, if not perfectly, and trades iffy intonation for dramatic power. As the sole tenor in the opera, José Pizarro has a tight production, and remains sketchy in figures and runs. He does a fine job communicating his character’s anger and contempt, however.

I’ve already mentioned González pushing several of his singers with uncomfortable tempos. Aside from this, he conducts well, with a firm hand that extends beyond the arias and into the recitatives. Oddly enough, he adds a chamber organ at several points to the otherwise authentic instrumentation he describes in the opera, without any attempt to justify it. Los Músicos de su Alteza furnishes exciting precision, strong accents, and firm dynamic control.

Fans of Italian Baroque opera will definitely want this release. Given Nebra’s obvious talent, I can only hope that it is followed by others demonstrating similar musical quality.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 11, 2011

  • UPC: 3760014191718

  • Catalog Number: ALPHA171

  • Label: Alpha

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: José Nebra

  • Conductor: Luis Antonio González

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Los Musicos de su Alteza

  • Performer: Los Musicos De Su Alteza, Gonzalez