Friday 23 December 2016

Unjustly neglected: Francesco Durante's Requiem

Francesco Durante - Requiem - Coro
Francesco Durante Requiem, Organ concert; Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, William Purefoy, Mark Dobell, Ben Davies, Clive Driskill-Smith, Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Stephen Darlington; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Popular in its day but now unjustly neglected, a striking Requiem mass

If you have heard of Francesco Durante at all it is probably as a teacher (his pupils included Pergolesi, Traetta, Piccini and Paisiello) but this new disc on the Coro label from Christ Church Cathedral Choir and Oxford Baroque, conductor Stephen Darlington, shows us another side to Durante. Stephen Darlington conducts choir, orchestra and soloists Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, WilliamPurefoy, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies in Durante's Requiem Mass in C minor, and organist Clive Driskill-Smith is the soloist in Durante's Organ Concerto in B flat major.

The recording is premiere of Darlington's new modern performing edition of Durante's Requiem, making easily available for the first time a work which was remarkably popular in its day. Though Durante was based in Naples, the Requiem seems to have spread widely over the Hapsburg Empire, but was in fact never published. Naples was renowned for its opera, and Durante's major pupils were all known for their operatic work, so the fact the Durante concentrated on writing sacred music seems to have hindered his historical reputation.

The Requiem is not the first orchestral requiem by a long chalk, but it very much takes a symphonic approach to the music. Listening to it I was reminded of the Requiem by Michael Haydn, an important precursor of Mozart's Requiem. Not that much is known about the work, but it was probably premiered in Rome in 1746; one probable suggestion begin a requiem mass for Philip V of Spain at S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli.

Durante wrote the Requiem for an interesting combination of performers. The main choir is five-part (SSATB), from which group the soloists were taken. There is also a ripieno group (ATB) which is often used simply to reinforce the tutti, but Durante also makes use of the ripieno group to create a rich eight-part texture.

On this recording both choirs are sung by members of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. The recording does not specify details, but with a choir of 14 trebles, 5 altos, 5 tenors, and 4 basses, the numeric options are relatively limited. The soloists are not drawn from the choir but use singers associated with The Sixteen.

This is a substantial work with, Introit, Kyrie, Gradual, Sequence, Offertory, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Communion, Libera Me, Responsory (Lux Aeterna) I don't want to suggest that Durante's work is on a level with Mozart's but there is a great deal to enjoy in this appealing work. Durante uses his forces imaginatively, creating some striking textures. The soloists often function as semi-chorus, but it is clear from Durante's writing that he was influenced by contemporary operatic performance practice.

The five soloists on the disc function well as a group, whilst enjoying solo moments. Both sopranos tread a nice line between boyish whiteness and expressivity, and don't overly stand out. Alexandra Kidgell has a lovely, quasi-operatic solo in the Tuba mirum complete with high horns, whilst the following Mors stupebit sees the two sopranos has poised soprano duets contrasting with dramatic chorus. In fact the two sopranos pop up quite regularly and Durante clearly liked the combination of voices, so in the sober opening Introit also contrasts soprano duet and chorus with striking effect. Kidgell and Purefoy also duet to fine effect. Kidgell returns as soloist in the poised Dies illa section of the Libera Me,

Though the orchestral forces are discreet (12 strings, 2 horns and organ), there are moments when the divided trebles recede somewhat in the mix. But their vibrant tone ensures that they always remain present.

The organ concerto is a charming work, notable perhaps for the fact that few Italian keyboard concertos were written at the period. The recording does not make it clear what organ the work was played on, it sounds quite a discreet chamber organ and I would have liked something a bit more characterful. Clive Driskill Smith takes full advantage of the nifty finger requirements in the outer movements. whilst the middle movement is slower and more expressive with more striking harmony.

You feel that this is an important release, and I hopes the disc and Stephen Darlington's associated edition give some impetus to a work by a composer described by Charles Burnet as 'the best harmonist of his time' and of whom Jean-Jacques Rousseau said 'more ingenious than all the rest'.

Francesco Durante (1684-1755) - Requiem Mass in C minor
Francesco Durante - Organ Concerto in B flat minor
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Oxford Baroque
Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill (sopranos)
William Purefoy (counter-tenor)
Mark Dobell (tenor)
Ben Davies (bass)
Clive Driskill Smith (organ)
Recorded at St Michael and All Angels Church, Summertown, Oxford, 4-6 July 2016
CORO COR16147 1CD [63.27]
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