Nicola PORPORA (1686 – 1768)
Or che una number ingrata (Cantata no. 8) (1735) [14.04]
Oh se fosse il mio core (Cantata no. 10) (1735) [10.34]
Destatevi, o pastori (Cantata no. 9) (1735) [16.48]
Oh Dio, che non e vero (Cantata no. 11) (1735) [13.20]
Veggo la selva e il monte (Cantata no. 7) (1735) [10.20]
Dal povero mio cor (Cantata no. 12) (1735) [12.56]
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen (cello)
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 10-13 December 2010
HYPERION CDA67894 [78.04]

Baroque chamber cantatas were designed for entertainment. Intended for quite a small audience, generally performed in the home of a patron, they were meant to show off the skills of the performers whilst charming, titillating and entrancing the listeners. Thus they provided glory for the performers and reflected glory for the patron. As the ‘onlie begetter’ the patron would come in for considerable kudos.

In the earlier parts of the 18th century, such cantatas were often associated with the arcadian movement. Quite a few of those by Handel were written for such an Arcadian Academy, where the high-born members took the names of shepherds. Those that were not written directly for such academies, often used the arcadian genre in their poetry. It was conventional for the poetry of a chamber cantata to express itself in pastoral terms. As such, the music could be taxing, displaying the singer’s fine points such as a capability with divisions or a fine messa di voce. Virtuoso display was not necessarily of prime importance. Patrons regarded themselves as connoisseurs and, as such, it flattered them if you wrote piece which implied that they had a fine sophisticated taste.

On this disc we have five of a set of twelve cantatas written by Nicola Porpora and dedicated to His Royal Highness Frederick Prince of Wales in 1735. Frederick was George III’s father and known for his musical talent. The famous Mercier painting depicts him playing the cello in consort with his sisters.

Frederick, who was in constant opposition to his father, supported the Opera of The Nobility which was set up as a rival to Handel’s Royal Academy - which was supported by the King. Nicola Porpora was one of the composers brought over to provide operas for the new company and the famous castrato Farinelli (one of Porpora’s pupils) came to London to sing. Frederick, a keen amateur cellist, ended up making music with Farinelli with the singer accompanying himself on the harpsichord.

These cantatas appeared in print in 1735, around the time that Farinelli and Prince Frederick were making music together. Given their florid dedication to the Prince they may well have featured in these sessions.

When these pieces first appeared in print there was no mention of the author of the texts. This is rather strange as they were written by Metastasio, the leading operatic poet of the age. The texts seem to have been written early in his career but quite when Porpora got hold of them and set them is unclear. We know from one of Metastasio’s correspondents that Porpora wrote the cantatas whilst Metastasio was writing the texts, so it seems highly unlikely that Porpora wrote them in London; instead they seem to have been something he had in his luggage.

In style the cantatas generally adhere to the requirements of the chamber cantata, providing the singer with many occasions for subtle display of technique. But as an operatic composer Porpora was known for the virtuoso display of the Neapolitan style of opera which he brought to London. The arias in the cantatas do not reach the level of virtuoso acrobatic display that Porpora uses in his operas, but there are moments when it is clear that he is definitely showing off, moving the chamber cantata closer to the operatic scena; something that Handel himself did as well.

So, though the first cantata on the disc, Or che una nube ingrata allows the singer to display melodic gifts and great lyric beauty, later cantatas include some display elements. There are no alarming intervallic leaps, but fine displays of breath control. The first aria of the cantata Veggo la selva e il monte is simply lovely, but it does require the singer to produce long trills. The same cantata finishes with a lively conclusion where the singer gets to display facility with divisions. In this aria and in a few others on the disc Porpora includes a delightfully lively bass line which contrasts nicely with the vocal line.

Here the cantatas are sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, displaying all the control and musicality required of his great predecessor Farinelli. Davies is simply a delight to listen to. There is scarcely a moment when technical limitations intrude and everything is sung with his familiar musicality. We really feel transported to the chamber of a great prince, privileged to overhear the singer entertaining his patron. If the performances sometimes feel a little cool, then this is hardly Davies’ fault; he is working with material which itself is slightly cool. Porpora does not imbue his cantatas with the sort of imperative vivid drama that Handel does; we have to be content with civilised musical entertainment.

Davies is accompanied by the group Arcangelo, directed from the cello by Jonathan Cohen. The other performers are Kristian Bezuidenhout (organ and harpsichord), Stephanie-Marie Degano (violin), Judith Evans (double bass), Monica Pusilnik (guitar and lute), Siobhan Armstrong (harp), Rebecca Miles (recorder) and Peter Whelan (bassoon). The accompaniments partake of the same civilised musicality as the vocal one. The results feel like real chamber music - a group of colleagues collaborating - rather than musicians simply accompanying a singer.

The CD booklet includes an article on Porpora and the cantatas, plus texts in Italian and English.

An attractive disc of civilised entertainment which wears its learning and musicality lightly; lovers of fine singing should not hesitate. It is a must for anyone interested in widening their experience of baroque music.

Robert Hugill

A fine disc of civilised entertainment which wears its learning and musicality lightly.