Notes and Editorial Reviews
Vispera de confesores
Àngel Recasens, dir; La Grande Chapelle; Schola Antiqua
LAUDA 4 (59:34
José de Nebra, one of Spain’s leading 18th-century composers, was born into a musical family in Calatayud, where he was baptized on January 6, 1702. His initial musical training took place under his father, José Antonio Nebra, who became in turn organist and then
maestro di capilla
at Cuenca Cathedral. In 1719, the younger Nebra moved to Madrid, where he became organist at a convent and started to compose for the theaters in the city. Five years later he was appointed as organist at the royal chapel. After turning down offers to become maestro at Santiago Cathedral, and organist at Cuenca, Nebra was appointed vice-maestro of the royal chapel (in 1751), remaining in Madrid until his death on July 11, 1768.
Nebra’s extensive output, which includes both stage works and a large body of sacred music, has hardly begun to be explored on record, although a zarzuela,
Viento es la dicha de Amor
(1743), was reviewed with great enthusiasm by David Johnson in
20:2; and Tom Moore was no less responsive to a recording of his 1751 Matins in 25:5. The present setting of the Vespers psalms and Magnificat is the last of four settings made by Nebra, appearing in 1758 under the title “Vespers for the community of saints or the Virgin.” Here it has been put into the context of a liturgical reconstruction for the Office of Vespers for the “Common of Confessors not Popes,” and includes three of the Vespers psalms—
Dixit Dominus, Beatis vir
along with two further appropriate psalms, plainsong antiphons, and the hymn
Unlike Nebra’s other Vespers settings, which have orchestral accompaniment, this one is a strictly
work for four voices, here sung one to a part. A variety of
choices have been made, mostly polyphony and plainsong, but in the case of
the verses alternate between
(simply harmonized chant) and organ, while
is shared between organ and polyphony. In general terms, Nebra’s polyphony is extremely restrained, with little use of melisma or word repetition, relying rather on an exquisite use of dissonance and harmonic shifts for its often profound effect. It is music whose timelessness is betrayed only by the odd touch that anchors it to its own century.
Much the most ambitious setting is that of the Magnificat, where the willingness the composer had shown elsewhere to admit limited word-painting (at “De torrente” in
, for example, where the four parts tumble over each other in dramatically surging fashion) comes into greater play, along with generally greater expansiveness. “Quia respexit” employs some of Nebra’s most affectingly beautiful dissonance to illustrate the “humble state” of the Virgin, while “Et misericordia” not only introduces a startling flattened tone on the second syllable of “misercordia,” but darker, harsher dissonance at the words “timentibus eum” (“who fear him”).
But dominating all this music is a feeling of a profound, understated spirituality that is further enhanced by performances that do it full justice. The substantial contribution of the plainsong Schola Antiqua under their director Juan Carlos Asensio (who was responsible for the reconstruction) is beautifully judged, while the four voices of La Grande Chapelle (Anne Cambier, soprano; Timothy Travers-Brown, alto; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; and Jonathan Brown, bass) are not only excellent individually, but also blend perfectly, creating a finely worked web of sound in Nebra’s polyphony, while producing some admirably animated singing in the rarer moments where a more extrovert approach is required. Herman Stinder’s playing on a dulcetly toned positive organ is also worthy of praise, although it does not sound as if it has any Spanish characteristics. But then neither does the vocal writing, which is rather that of the
that was still very much alive and well in the mid 18th century. The sound and presentation are both outstanding, although the actual texts are unfortunately printed in very small type. But that should be no deterrent to investigating an exceptional recording of music of high quality.
FANFARE: Brian Robins
Works on This Recording
Vispera de confesores by José Nebra
La Grande Chapelle
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