José de Nebra (1702-1768)
Misa a 8 de la Basílica de Guadelupe: sinfonia
Francisco Corselli (1705-1778)
Rompa, Señor, mi acento (Cantada al Santísimo con Violines)
José de Nebra
Divina mesa próvida (Cantada al Santísimo con Violines)
Nicola Antonio Porpora (1686-1768)
Sinfonia in G minor, op. 2,3
Francisco Corselli
Por el bosque del mundo (Cantada al Santísimo)
José de Nebra
Suavidad el aire inspire (Cantada a la Asunción)
Los Elementos/Alberto Miguélez Rouco (alto)
rec. 2020, Église du Sacré-Coeur, Basel, Switzerland
Texts and translations included
Pan Classics PC10416 [67]

One of the interesting developments at the early music scene in recent years is the attention that is given to Spanish music of the 18th century. The court in Madrid played a central role in music life, and the two composers represented on the present disc were for a substantial part of their careers connected to it.

José de Nebra was born in Calatayud into a family of musicians. He received his first musical training from his father who was the organist of Cuenca cathedral and teacher of the choirboys. He would later be promoted to maestro de capilla of the cathedral. Two of José’s brothers were also musicians and worked as organists in various cathedrals. José moved to Madrid in 1719, where he worked as organist in a convent and then as a member of the chapel of an aristocratic family, where he became the colleague of Antonio de Literes. He also began composing music for various theatres. In 1724 he became organist of the royal chapel and in 1751 was appointed as the chapel’s vice-maestro. In this capacity he had the duty of replacing the church music which had been lost in a fire at the royal palace in 1734. He showed his inclination for Italian music by suggesting the purchase of compositions by Neapolitan composers as Alessandro Scarlatti and Leonardo Leo.

Francisco Corselli was born in Piacenza, a town south-east of Milan, and was baptized as Francisco Courcelle. His surname sounds French: both his parents were of French origin. His father Charles was dance master to the Farnese family in Parma and many members of his family were active in that capacity at several courts in Europe. The earliest signs of Francisco’s musical activities were the funerals of Francesco Farnese and Antonio Farnese in Parma in 1727 and 1731 respectively. He may also have written the music for these occasions. For the rest of his life he would be connected to a member of the Farnese family. From 1727 to 1733 he was maestro di cappella to the Duke of Parma, the future King Carlos III of Spain, eldest son of Elisabeth (or Isabella) Farnese who was the second wife of Philip V. At her behest he moved to Madrid in 1734 where he was appointed music master to the royal children. He started to compose operas – most of which have been lost – and villancicos. In 1738 he succeeded Josep de Torres y Martínez Bravo as maestro of the royal chapel and rector of the Colegio de Niños Cantores (the boys’ choir of the chapel).

Given that Nebra was influenced by the Italian style and that Corselli was Italian by birth, it does not surprise that the cantatas performed here smell of Italy, and in particular the chamber cantata. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who established its basic form of two pairs of recitative and aria. However, he himself and those who followed in his footsteps, took the freedom to derive from this standard. That is the case here as well. Whereas Corselli sticks to the standard, Nebra’s cantata Divina mesa próvida omits the opening recitative. Suavidad al aire inspire consists of only one recitative and one aria.

It is notable that these four pieces are cantatas on sacred subjects in the vernacular. They were probably not intended for liturgical use, but rather for non-liturgical events, such as ceremonies and feasts. They replaced the traditional villancicos. However, the cantada did not differ fundamentally from the villancico: in the course of the 18th century, the latter had adopted some of the features of the cantada, such as the dacapo aria. The booklet does not give any dates of composition, but it seems likely that they were written before 1750, as in that year King Ferdinand VI abolished the performance of cantatas in Spanish at the court in favour of responsories in Latin.

The disc opens with a very short sinfonia by Jose de Nebra, which is used as introduction to the ensuing cantata Rompa, Señor, mi acento by Corselli, which, as so many Spanish cantatas and villancicos, is a piece in honour of the Eucharist (al Santísimo). It is not just the structure which shows the Italian influence, but also the connection between text and music as well as the vocal virtuosity. The latter is a feature of the second aria. Its text refers to “unsettled natural forces” and storm, and that is graphically illustrated by the strings. We know these images from many Italian operas and secular cantatas. The preceding recitative also refers to storm and opens with the line “the heart is in doubt, it is fearful” and that is illustrated by a nervous bass line.

Por el bosque del mundo is another cantada al Santísimo, and here it is again the second aria that is technically demanding. And again we notice how well Corselli translates the text to music, witness the contrast between the first two lines of the aria, as between the third and the fourth in the second aria of the previous cantata.

The two cantatas by Nebra have been preserved in Mexico. The liner-notes don’t discuss how they have landed there. Both needed some ‘restoration’, as Alberto Miguélez Rouco calls it. Divina mesa próvida is a cantada al Santísimo with parts for two violins, but in the only source these parts are missing. Rouco therefore created his own parts on the basis of other cantatas by Nebra. In Suavidad al aire inspire, a cantata at the ascension of Mary, the recitative is in alto range, whereas the aria requires the tessitura of a soprano. Rouco decided to transpose the latter for his own voice. I wonder how this difference could be explained, but that is not discussed in the liner-notes. As a recitative is easier to transpose, could this cantata have been intended for soprano rather than alto? Whatever, in both cases Rouco has done a fine job. The recitative in the former cantata is accompanied, and Rouco’s string parts are very meaningful, as they eloquently illustrate the text. The latter cantata is intimate and has a spirit of peace and quiet, which is not surprising, given the subject.

The Sinfonia in G minor by Nicola Porpora is a bit of an outsider in the programme. Its inclusion is justified by a reference to Porpora’s pupil Farinelli, the famous castrato, who after the end of his career lived in Madrid. Stylistically it fits the programme, as the cantatas breathe the spirit of the Italian style.

The cantatas were originally intended to be sung by a castrato; the sources of the two cantatas by Corselli bear the name of the alto castrato Joseph Galicani, who sang in the royal chapel from 1749 until his death in 1771. They suit Rouco’s voice perfectly. I had not heard him before, and I like his voice very much. He produces a sweet sound, but he certainly knows how to bring out the expression in these pieces, including the sharp edges. I regret that he often uses a slow vibrato, which is not really disturbing, but leads to a derivation from the pitch. It did not spoil my enjoyment of this recording. The music is excellent, and both Rouco and the ensemble do it ample justice.

This disc is another step in the direction of a full appreciation of Spanish music of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen

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