José de NEBRA (1702 - 1768)
Esta Dulzura Amable - Sacred cantatas
Que contrario, Señor, Cantada al Santísimo [14:29]
Alienta fervorosa, Candata al Santísimo [13:19]
Sonata for harpsichord in e minor* [13:40]
Entre cándidos, bellos, Cantada al Santísimo [14:20]
Llegad, llegad, creyentes, Cantada al Santísimo [9:31]
María Espada (soprano)
Al Ayre Español/Eduardo López Banzo (harpsichord*)
rec. 10 - 15 November 2010, Ermita Virgen del Rosario, Ambel, Spain. DDD
Texts and translations included. SACD

There was a time when musicologists believed Spanish composers of the 18th century were aiming to preserve a 'pure' Spanish style and to resist the influence from Italy which was spreading over the rest of Europe. More recent research has shown that even in the 17th century some Italian influence was to be found, in particular in the writing of secular songs for solo voice and basso continuo. From the end of that century the Italian style also manifested itself in other genres, including sacred music. These cantatas bear witness to that.
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 vicemaestro. 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.
This taste for Italian music is also reflected in the four cantatas which Eduardo López Banzo has selected from Nebra's large output. Apart from liturgical music on Latin texts Nebra wrote a large number of spiritual compositions on Spanish texts. These four cantatas are all for solo voice, two violins and basso continuo, and written al Santísimo, for the Holy Sacrament. They consist of two aria and recitative pairs, in a purely operatic style. They have much in common with the solo cantatas by Vivaldi. The operatic character of these cantatas is emphasized by the sometimes virtuosic cadenzas incldued by María Espada. On occasion this goes a bit too far, but on the whole the practice seems well judged.
Que contrario, Señor begins with a fiery recitative, about man turning away from God. It is followed by a aria cantable: "Your love offers peace". There is a strong contrast between the A and B sections, the latter expressing the "tremendous madness" of man. The last aria depicts the spiritual battle of man: "Go man happily to battle, defeat your disdain and evil if you hope to proclaim victory". The aria is dominated by fanfare figures, and each "cantar" (proclaim [victory]) is decorated with extended coloratura.
In baroque era cantatas images of birds and of the sea are frequently used. These sacred cantatas are no different in that respect. Alienta fervorosa is about man being urged to reach for "this candid food", the sacrament. The first aria uses the image of a bird: "Fly, fly fervently to the mysterious sphere with wings of love". "Vuela" (fly) and "alas" (wings) are suggested by coloratura. The last aria begins with the line "Ven, ven del Libano", better known in its Latin version: "Veni de Libano", a verse from The Song of Songs which has frequently been set to music. The B section ends with another cadenza which emphasizes a keyword, "perfecciona"([the Divine Bread] perfects [you]).
Entre cándidos, bellos is again about the sacrament, here referred to in the first recitative as "Divine delicacy". In the A section of the first aria "adorele" (adore) is singled out, whereas the B section juxtaposes the images of Jesus as a lamb and as a lion: "though you see him as a lamb he can be a lion". The latter part is rightly emphasized by María Espada by adding a cadenza and singing forte. The last aria makes use of the images of the sea and the storm, and Nebra depicts them in an almost Vivaldian manner.
The last cantata, Llegad, llegad, creyentes, is the least dramatic of the four. The first aria is again termed 'cantabile'. It refers to the side of Jesus at the cross which was stabbed by the soldiers and from which the soul is urged to drink. Words like "sweetness", "grace" and "perfection" determine the rather intimate character of this aria. The cantata ends with the joyful words: "Await with fervour, enjoy, happy soul, the palm and the laurel of victory".
The programme is completed with a keyboard sonata. Nebra was known as a brilliant organist, and was the teacher of, among others, Antonio Soler. He worked for the royal family at the same time as Domenico Scarlatti, and there are clear similarities between their respective keyboard works. The Sonata in e minor is in three movements: allegro - corrente viva - vivo. The former is fugal, and the sonata contains various passages with chromaticism.
This disc sheds light on a little-known composer from the 18th century in Spain. This period in Spanish music history is largely unknown anyway, and only in the last ten years or so Spanish early-music specialists are exploring this part of their musical heritage. Eduardo López Banzo is one of them, and he has made various fine recordings with this repertoire. This disc is a very good addition to the growing catalogue. López Banzo couldn't have made a better choice than María Espada to sing the solo parts. She has everything needful to explore the character of these cantatas to the full. She takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, and sings the arias with true operatic fervour. In the more intimate passages she shows great sensitivity towards the text and its content. The instrumental parts are also well executed, and Banzo serves up a compelling performance of the sonata.
There is every reason to enthusiastically welcome this disc: both music and interpretation are of fine quality. In the booklet Banzo tells us how he found these cantatas - in the archive of the cathedral of Guatemala City - but there’s little about the music or the composer.
Johan van Veen
Every reason to give an enthusiastic welcome to this disc.