Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

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 ?rst 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 Piet‡
dei Turchini. Giovanni Pergolesi, studied at the Conservatorio dei Poveri
di Ges˘ 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 premiËre 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

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 múrebat 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 …glisse 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

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

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

Claire Seymour

image_description=Alpha 449
product_title=Pergolesi, Porpora and Leo
product_by=Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (conductor), Sandrine Piau (soprano), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor)
product_id=Alpha Classics, CD ALPHA 449 [66:11]