PORPORA Vespro per la festivita dell’assunta • Martin Gester, cond; Marilia Vargas, Michiko Takahashi (sop); Delphine Galou (alt); La Maîtrise de Bretagne Ch; Le Parlement de Musique (period instruments) • AMBRONAY 030 (64:03 Text and Translation) Live: Ambronay, France 9/16/2011
Vespers, particularly those devoted to feast days of the Virgin Mary, seemed to be one of the favorite services to set by most early 18th-century composers (and some later, too). Not only were theRead more Psalm texts wonderfully descriptive, but the services could be extended so that a composer could choose to set the entire bunch or collaborate with others by setting only selected movements, which then would often have another life as individual motets. Beginning with the invocation Deus in adjutorium, the texts contrast in mood and degree of supplication until the final Magnificat, admittedly not a Psalm but none the less a text that evokes a larger and often more festive display. This disc, devoted to Haydn’s early mentor Nicola Porpora, presents a service created in 1744 for the Ospedaletta, one of four Venetian orphanages or schools where music was a focus.
That year, as in years past, Porpora created a work meant for the Festival of the Assumption, and since the performance medium was singular, he scored it for strings and women’s voices, presumably the more mature ones taking the solo roles and the girls forming the four-part chorus. Indeed, one of the items, the Salve Regina, was meant for Angiola Moro, a professional alto who was no doubt an alumna of the school and for whom Porpora had sometimes written arias in his operas. All did not go well, for calumny raised its ugly head when an anonymous snitch reported to the board of directors that several of the works had been performed at other Ospedali on other occasions and therefore the composer was not doing his duty of writing new works. Porpora was offended and horrified by the accusation, for in January 1745 he wrote a defense listing the entire pieces of the vespers and daring them to compare his music at the Ospedaletta with those elsewhere. The board backed down, and although Porpora was exonerated, the excellent booklet notes by Kurt Markström note that he was probably protesting too much, perhaps even recycling bits and pieces from his early career in Naples and Rome.
Whatever the reality, Markström and director Martin Gester have tracked down four of the pieces, three of which most definitely belong to the 1744 service, though several are still missing. The result is a disc that contains quite possibly some of the most cheerful movements written for a solemn Vespers ceremony. All four pieces are written in cantata style; that is, each is subdivided into a number of individual movements. Right at the outset, the Laudate pueri sets the mood with a long orchestral accompaniment with rolling triplets moving at quite a clip, and when the two voices enter, their lines tumble over each other like a fast-moving stream. The chorus tends to be more subdued with homophonic, suspensive lines that move more deliberately. By the “Quis sicut” one finds Porpora inserting a lovely French minuet, and indeed both the first movements of the Laetatus sum and Lauda Jerusalem are very secularlized minuets, as is the “Eia ergo” from the Salve Regina, all with nicely ornamented and not so stylized dance rhythms blatantly displayed. He can also be quite old-fashioned, such as in the very Vivaldian “Ad te clamamus” in the Salve Regina with its rolling, highly melismatic line, not to mention the “Quia illic sederunt” from the Laetatus sum, where the ostinato walking line in the bass reeks of Handel. To add to the secular atmosphere, Porpora even concocts a double concerto movement for solo cello and soprano in the “Qui habitare” of the first motet, with a rather tortuous instrumental line ably and subtly performed by cellist Patrick Langot. The composer also does not shy away from obvious word-painting, such as in the lengthy musical sighs of the “At te suspiramus” of the Salve Regina, and just in case one still thinks of these four works as entirely serious, the final “Sicut erat” in the Lauda Jerusalem repeats the opening roulades of the Laudate pueri as a musical pun (and in case you missed it: “Sicut erat in principio” stands for “As it was in the beginning”). No wonder certain snarky members of the audience must have felt Porpora was skirting insolence.
Although the notes don’t state it, this is a live performance, as witnessed by extensive applause at the end of the disc (and a couple of barely audible creaks and snorts elsewhere). No matter; Gester’s early-instrument group does an absolutely splendid job, with energetic tempos, good balance with the vocal soloists, and a precision that would be enviable in a conventional recorded disc where one has the opportunity for many takes. The soloists are all first-rate. Marilia Vargas has a nice mezzo-soprano with both clarity and depth, but she handles the often fiendish coloratura with considerable ease. Michiko Takahashi is a nice, somewhat lighter foil, who alas only has a considerable amount to do in the Lauda Jerusalem. She, too, blends nicely with her colleague Vargas in their duets. The real powerhouse here is contralto Delphine Galou, who lends depth and beauty to her very taxing parts. She is spot-on in terms of pitch, and there is a richness of tone that, if she is equal to the original soloist Moro, leaves no doubt about Porpora’s obvious obsession with the voice. In short, this is an excellent disc, and while I am always uncomfortable with the inclusion of applause at the end (as often happens in live recordings), I would not hesitate to recommend this disc as a wonderful and exciting—and excellently performed—example of secularized sacred music from this important transitional time between the Baroque and Classical styles.