Movement 1, Sinfonia: Presto [0'45]
Porpora is best known for his open rivalry with Handel on the London operatic scene, and is remembered more for the ferocious controversies that raged between the two men than for his music. But this dazzling new disc from Auser Musici shows the composer to be a profound musician with a rich and wide-ranging output, a mastery of compositional technique and a keen sense of theatre and dramatic pacing. Stylishly performed and recorded, this disc will surely force a reappraisal of Porpora’s artistry and reawaken interest in this great composer.
The cantatas recorded here clearly display the principal features of Porpora’s compositional style, notably his legendary melodic elegance, the remarkable fidelity of the music to the sentiments expressed in the text, and his skill in writing recitative, which was regarded as exemplary (more than one author described him as ‘the father of the recitative’). Stefano Aresi writes in his illuminating booklet notes: ‘Today, after centuries of neglect, all these characteristics surge from the pages of his scores with explosive force, showing how groundless are the widespread stereotypes which portray Porpora exclusively as a skilful purveyor of bravura arias for the use of his pupils. In the aesthetics of so profound and refined a musician, virtuosity was a means to an end: his requirement of an extremely high level of technique from performers was an instrument to enable him to obtain a seductive, spellbinding naturalness of style, necessary in its turn to create for the intellect and the senses a pleasure that would ‘move the passions’.’
This is Hyperion’s third disc from Auser Musici, a vocal and instrumental ensemble which, taking its name from a lost Etruscan river in the plain of Pisa, brings together instrumentalists and singers with an international reputation for historical performance practice. Auser Musici’s performances, in concert and on disc, are the result of a long-term commitment involving a positive collaboration with musicologists in the research of original sources.
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'I have been studying Handel and his era for more than two years; […] to my great astonishment, I have observed the superiority of Porpora in respect of both grandeur of style and dramatic power.’ This forceful statement, taken from a private letter which Romain Rolland sent to the Italian scholar Giuseppe Radiciotti around a century ago, displays an attitude verging on consternation at the unexpectedly high standard the Frenchman had discovered in the music of Nicola Porpora. Even today the Neapolitan composer remains completely unknown to the general public. In musicological circles, although his output has not yet been systematically studied, there is at least a general acknowledgment of his importance, and there has been some valuable research into specific aspects of his work. We have chosen to include here cantatas that are not only of outstanding quality (and thus intrinsically deserving of revival), but which also convey the least monolithic view of Porpora’s style. By representing the diversity of Porpora’s music, we can do justice to some of the variables inevitable in the work of a prestigious composer: the tastes and demands of patrons, the historical moment at which his creative achievements took shape, and the natural and continuous transformation of his aesthetic philosophy over the course of time.
The parallel often drawn between Handel and Porpora has long-established roots, and is closely connected with the two men’s open rivalry on the London operatic scene. The Italian composer arrived on English soil between late summer and autumn 1733 at the invitation of the so-called Opera of the Nobility, for which he worked until its collapse in 1736–7. While it is true that the ferocious controversies arising from this rivalry have long clouded the image of Porpora with reductive, rough-and-ready judgements (he is often mentioned solely as Handel’s ‘opponent’), it did at least ensure, by acting as a stimulus to research now and then, that his name never entirely disappeared from music history books. In 1951, Frank Walker (a pioneer of Porpora studies) gave the first clear-cut description of the composer’s importance at the time of his arrival in London: ‘When Porpora came to England in 1733, at the age of forty-seven, he had done more than pursue his own shadow. He had to his credit, after a quarter of a century’s hard work, twenty-eight operas, three oratorios and a dramma sacro, six or seven serenatas and much church music.’ Porpora was indeed one of the most sought-after composers in the celebrated theatres and principal musical establishments of the major European cities. Both before and after his sojourn in Britain he maintained a highly prestigious international career (divided between Naples, Venice, Dresden, Vienna, Turin, Rome, Milan, and so on), enjoying considerable influence on the contemporary musical scene and leaving a large number of excellent pupils (including Haydn, Farinelli, Caffarelli and Corri). One aspect of Porpora’s work which Walker did not seem to hold in high esteem when writing his article (and he could hardly have done otherwise, since the fundamental thesis on the subject, by Everett Lavern Sutton, appeared only in 1974) was his significance as a composer of chamber cantatas, a repertory to which he made an abundant contribution in terms of both quantity (over 130 works) and quality.
At the peak of Porpora’s London popularity there appeared an extremely successful collection of twelve cantatas (for soprano or contralto with basso continuo or obbligato harpsichord, and in certain cases a concertante instrument as well) entitled Nuovamente composte opre di musica vocale (‘Newly composed works of vocal music’). Published in an elegant edition in 1735 (neatly and accurately printed, on high-quality paper and with ample margins), these exquisite pieces were subsequently to become, from the late eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, the principal yardstick for assessing the composer’s style in dictionaries of music, along with the Sonate XII di violino e basso (‘Twelve sonatas for violin and bass’), the Sei duetti latini sulla Passione di Cristo (‘Six Latin duets on the Passion of Christ’), and a few sacred pieces. The high production costs of the publication were borne by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who evidently saw in this collection a fitting monument to his patronage: integrally planned and executed by a refined avant-garde composer of the calibre of Porpora, and setting unpublished texts by the greatest poet of the age (Metastasio), it epitomized the aesthetic aims which the prince championed in England in the realms of opera, poetry, and painting.
The cantatas assembled in this volume clearly display the principal features of Porpora’s compositional style at this stage in his career, notably his legendary melodic elegance, the remarkable fidelity of the music to the sentiments expressed in the text, and his skill in writing recitative, which was regarded as exemplary (more than one author described him as ‘the father of recitative’). Già la notte s’avvicina (La pesca) was included in this sumptuous publishing venture, and neatly illustrates all these stylistic features, as well as the unusual nature of the bass line in the pieces in the collection, which owes its exceptional cantabile quality to the fact that it was mostly conceived for the cello (an instrument of which the Prince of Wales was a creditable amateur exponent).
Also connected to England, but for quite different reasons, is Or sì m’avveggio, oh Amore, whose forces include a concertante cello for the only time in Porpora’s cantatas. This work has survived only because it is contained in a volume from the private collection of the London musician Benjamin Cooke (the younger), whose books were transferred in 1883 from the library of the Sacred Harmonic Society to constitute a substantial part of the collections of the newly founded Royal College of Music. How the piece came into Cooke’s hands has still to be established, even though the use he made of it is obvious enough: well known at the time as an excellent teacher, he adapted it as a tool for his pupils to study continuo. The voracious but selective curiosity of this late-eighteenth-century collector must have had no difficulty in finding compositions by Porpora on the market even years after he left England: works by the Neapolitan composer were still circulating and arousing the interest of British musicians (and would long continue to do so), and we know that precious manuscript copies passed through the hands of such personalities as William Savage, Richard Stevens and William Robinson. However, there is nothing to show that Or sì m’avveggio, oh Amore was actually written in England. Stylistic analysis does not yield any elements that can help us to date it very precisely: we can do no more than assert that this cantata broadly corresponds to traits shown by the composer during his years in Naples in the 1720s and his London period of the mid-1730s, although it certainly dates from a few years before the publication of the Nuovamente composte opre di musica vocale (1735).
We can, however, be sure of the dating of the earliest cantata on this recording, Credimi pur che t’amo, completed in Rome (as is indicated by Porpora himself on his conducting score) on 4 July 1712. A constant exchange of composers and performers between Naples and the capital of the Papal States was the norm in the early eighteenth century: one need only think, for example, of the careers of Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovan Carlo Cailò and their respective influence on the Roman operatic scene and the Neapolitan string school. The young and promising Porpora must have quickly entered this virtuoso circle, assimilating the influences of the surroundings in which he found himself. Although the instrumental sections of this cantata are written in the style of the concerto grosso (with systematic alternation between soli and tutti), and while some passages in the vocal lines display a Scarlattian flavour, and the character of the recitatives and certain harmonic options immediately call to mind the Roman milieu, there are many elements which (even to a modern ear) evince considerable originality and powerful innovations. An example is found in the conclusion of the last movement of the opening Sinfonia. Such innovations would not have stood out so strongly in the artistic climate of Naples, where the far-reaching transformations of musical language that Porpora himself, Leo, Vinci and their contemporaries were shortly to export to the world were already being prepared and tried out.
Or che d’orrido Verno is among Porpora’s finest chamber cantatas. It cannot be securely dated, but may have been written when the composer was active in Naples or Venice (or perhaps even Dresden), between 1725 and 1730, or else in the late 1740s. The work features a two-section sinfonia (with no tempo marking) and assigns exceptionally brilliant roles to both the singer and the concertante flute. However, the demands on virtuoso technique do not overshadow the prominent, delicately handled echoes between voice, solo instrument and string accompaniment that characterize the writing (a typical trait of the composer, here illustrated in exemplary fashion in the sensual, poignant ‘Lungi dal ben che s’ama’). Indeed, refinement, subtle interplay between the parts, and highly intensive (at times obsessive) exploitation of the thematic material were among the distinctive features of Porpora’s output in general. These elements, combined with extremely rich melodic invention, a mastery of compositional technique, and a keen sense of theatre and dramatic pacing, marked him out for a successful career. Today, after centuries of neglect, all these characteristics surge from the pages of his scores with explosive force, showing how groundless are the widespread stereotypes which portray Porpora exclusively as a skilful purveyor of bravura arias for the use of his pupils. In the aesthetics of so profound and refined a musician, virtuosity was a means to an end: his requirement of an extremely high level of technique from performers was an instrument to enable him to obtain a seductive, spellbinding naturalness of style, necessary in its turn to create for the intellect and the senses a pleasure that would ‘move the passions’.
Stefano Aresi © 2008