25 May 2020

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

While in Naples, Burney attended private concerts in the homes of the nobility, enjoyed opera at Teatro San Carlo and explored Naples’ music conservatoires, hoping to glean information and ideas which might revive musical performance and composition in his own country, for, ‘As the scholars in the Venetian Conservatorios have been justly celebrated for their taste and neatness of execution, so those of Naples have long enjoyed the reputation of being the first contra-puntists or composers in Europe.’

Had Burney visited the music conservatoires of southern Italian city in the first few decades of the eighteenth century he would have found among their students and teachers all three of the composers featured on this recording by Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques. Leonardo Leo, became, in 1709, a pupil of Nicola Fago at the Conservatorio S Maria della Pietà dei Turchini. Giovanni Pergolesi, studied at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo at some time between 1720 and 1725, the same conservatoire at which Nicola Porpora had enrolled in September 1696.

Though his life was characterised by frequent travels throughout Europe, including a spell as Handel’s rival in London - the Opera of the Nobility, opened its first season in December 1733 with the première of his Arianna in Naxo - Porpora returned to his home town in the summer of 1737, on his appointment as maestro di cappella at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. He finally re-settled in Naples towards the end of his life, a time of misfortune and hardship, securing in spring 1760 the position of maestro di cappella at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto, Naples and the same role at the fourth of the city’s conservatoire, the Conservatorio di S Onofrio, in autumn that year. He died, in poverty, in March 1768, just 18 months before Burney’s Neapolitan sojourn.

In his liner article, Dinko Fabris describes these composers as ‘three great exponents of a Neapolitan school - one that lasted for more than two centuries’. Of them, Pergolesi is certainly the best known: despite the brevity of his life, his 26 years produced the opera,La serva padrona, which triggered the Querelle des Bouffons - the battle of musical ideologies which raged in Paris during the 1750s - and the most oft -printed musical work of the 18th century, his Stabat Mater. This work was possibly written during the very last days of his short life and commissioned, Grove tells us, by the noble fraternity in the church of S Maria dei Sette Dolori in Naples as a replacement for Alessandro Scarlatti’s Stabat mater.

Christophe Rousset and the 17-strong Les Talens Lyriques are joined by soprano Sandrine Piau and countertenor Christopher Lowrey in a performance which squeezes every drop of dolorosa from Pergolesi’s graphic dissonances, powerfully creating both intensity and intimacy. One can sense the deep reflections that Rousset has undertaken on matters of tempo, colour, string-voice dialogues, structure and ornament, and the decisions made produce, on the whole, highly persuasive results. A slow tempo is adopted for the opening ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’, the deep organ tread heavy with dejection and complemented by the clean, focused tone of the strings’ winding suspensions. The string playing throughout is beautiful, each detail considered and refined. Indeed, there are times when I’d like Rousset to let the violins’ grace shine more brightly: they seem rather subdued when in unison with the alto solo in ‘Ein Mater fons amoris’, for example, though Rousset does make much of the dynamic contrasts in the instrumental passages of that movement. A lovely buoyancy is generated by the cheerful, bright tone of the upper strings and the light-footed bass line in ‘Inflammatus et accensus’, and ‘Sancta Mater istud agas’ is particularly beautiful - though I’m not convinced by the organ’s switch between crotchets and quavers, as the former feel more ponderous than the consistent quavers notated. In ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ I feel that the balance between bass and violins in the surging counterpoint favours the former a little too much. That said, the latter movement is striking for its forward momentum and fire: the deep intensity of faith expressed by the driving contrapuntal dialogues (‘Make my heart burn/ With love for Christ my God’) is at eased at times by chains of suspensions but the energy and passion never lessen. There’s equal vigour in the concluding ‘Amen’ of ‘Quando corpus morietur’, the ‘assai’ in the tempo indication seemingly eschewed in favour of Presto molto with terrifically dramatic effect - all the more so as it follows some beautifully tender, hushed string playing at the start of the movement.

Ornaments are executed with pristine clarity - Piau’s trills are particularly taut and impressive. Rousset has clearly adopted the ‘long’ view with regard to appoggiaturas which are extended, occasionally to the point of mannerism, eking out the agony of the dissonances. I think that this can sometimes disturb the harmonic centre, as at the start of ‘Quis est homo’ where the dissonance is sustained and barely resolved. It can also lead to some very minor discrepancies between the vocal and string lines, as in ‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’ and ‘Fac ut portem’.

But, these are trifles. Rousset’s approach produces a consistency of eloquence and focus which is compelling. The two soloists are well-matched in the duets, Piau naturally brighter but judiciously cool and Lowrey softer and warm. The intonation of all is superb, and especially advantageous in the biting dissonances. In ‘Sancta Mater’ the duo blend with particularly beguiling effect. Piau sparkles lightly in ‘Cujus animam gementum’ and matches the staccato bite of the fiddles. Lowrey is dulcet in ‘Quae mœrebat et dolebat’ and nimbly negotiates the wide range of ‘Eia Mater fons amoris’, warm and full at the bottom and clear and bright when rising. The long, decorated phrases of ‘Fac ut portem’ are impressively silky and fluid, and form a terrific contrast to the jagged, incisive strings. Excepting the slightest of breaths that interrupts the final cadential elaboration, it’s hard to imagine this aria being more beautifully sung.

Alongside what must be one of the best-known sacred works in the repertoire, Les Talens Lyriques present two curiosities. They claim that this recording of Leo’s Beatus vir qui timet is the first, but while it may have been back in July 2018 when the recording was actually made, in the Églisse Notre-Dame de l’Assomption d’Auvers-sur-Oise, they were pipped at the post by Ensemble Animantica, whose Maestri a Sant’Onofrio, presenting works by Leo and Porpora, was released on the Bongiovanni label in March 2019. But, it’s certainly true that Leo’s setting of Psalm 112, which was re-published only as recently as 2007, is a rarity. And, Lowrey’s performance of this solo motet is spectacular.

The writing is somewhat conventional and Italianate, at least in the aria-like numbers. Think plentiful sequences, cycles of 5ths, hemiolas; Vivaldian string textures and virtuosities; and an elaborate vocal line replete with floridities. The strings begin the ‘Beatus vir’ and ‘Iucundus homo’ movements with racing runs and joyful skips, while the introduction of the ‘Dispersit’ features a lovely piano echo, and the movement as a whole has greater variety of mood and harmonic colour. Against the vivid, energised string sound Lowrey’s countertenor is stunningly focused and pure. It’s a warm, rounded voice but also very well-centred, even during the most elaborate vocal acrobatics. Rousset shapes Leo’s skilful string counterpoint and the interplay with the voice with a sure touch.

What makes the work more interesting, and Lowrey’s performance even more impressive, are the short recitative-like movements. There is admirable string discipline in the unisons of ‘Exortum est’, and precision in the contorted vocal leaps which give the movement a more old-fashioned feel. Lowrey uses the text well too. Unusual chromatic twists and harmonic shifts in the ‘Misericore’ are expressively crafted by Lowrey, whose tone here is exquisite. Bright, buoyant strings chase each other at the opening of the ‘Gloria’, before a slide into chromatic intensification by the organ and voice for the last textual phrase; it’s highly dramatic. In the final ‘Sicut era’, Lowrey enjoys the extended cascades and flounces, retaining a lovely clean and even line.

Porpora’s Salve regina in G major was most likely written for a young performer - some have hazarded one Elisabetta Mantonvani as the designee - at the Venetian Ospedale degli Incurabili, where he was maestro di cappella from 1726-33. In places it sounds like an extended and challenging vocal exercise, not a work intended to be directly expressive of its liturgical text, and we are reminded that Porpora taught many of the famous singers of his day, including Farinelli and Caffarelli. But, alongside the virtuoso vocal demands there is considerable melodic richness.

The opening ‘Salve regina’ has a lovely gentle quality and Piau’s soprano is free and full of joy, its fluidity and shine complementing the darker tints of the organ and low strings. An almost impossible lightness is achieved by the strings at the start of ‘Ad te clamamus’, then matched by Piau’s splendid fioratura; the soprano is equally athletic in the ‘Eia ergo’. ‘Ad te suspiramus’ sighs and weeps languorously but while Piau crafts long, mellifluous lines there’s rather too much ornament - this is one place where Porpora should have recognised that less would be more. In contrast, ‘Et Iesum’ allows her to display fine shaping of a simple line, one which ventures high and low - in either direction she sounds fully at ease - and the concluding ‘O clemens’ has a quasi-Mozartian calm.

Whether it’s a refreshingly dramatic and intense performance of a familiar favourite or a chance to explore the margins of early 18th -century Neapolitan musical life that the listener is seeking, this terrific disc by Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques will satisfy in no small measure.

Claire Seymour