Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Salve Regina in F major [15:00]
Salve Regina in C minor [12:07]
Il figliuol prodigo [21:04]
Lezioni del Giovedi Santo. Lezione I [9:00]
Toccatas for harpsichord: No. 2 in G minor [4:08] No. 14 in C minor [3:24]
Francesco DURANTE (1684-1755)
Concerto No. 4 in E minor [9:00]
Markus Hünniger (harpsichord), Ulrike Hofbauer (soprano)
Ensemble &cetera/Ulrike Hofbauer
rec. 12-15 September 2014, Marienkirche, Drebber, Germany
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88875 057442 [73:45]

Leonardo Leo has been known about in the footnotes of musical history as one of the leading composers of the ‘Neapolitan School’. He is also remembered on account of his influence on Handel who drew upon some of Leo's stage works when compiling his pasticcio operas for London.

This release provides a welcome opportunity to hear some of Leo’s sacred music, scored for solo voice and instrumental ensemble. As well as directing the ensemble, Ulrike Hofbauer takes the vocal part, originally written for castrato. She turns in performances of exquisite clarity and radiance which ideally realise the characteristic balance and lucidity of Leo’s style. That is a feature as much of his secular music as his sacred compositions, where the vocal lines are not ornamented to Baroque excess, but rather presage the Classical era in their pared down simplicity. Hofbauer observes that by her comparatively restrained use of vibrato. There are little chromatic inflections in the Salve Regina setting in F which anticipate even the Mozart of the ‘Great’ C minor Mass. For example there is the atmospheric moment when Hofbauer unobtrusively enters barely before the ending of the instrumental introduction in the first movement. This reminds me of the similar gambit Sylvia McNair makes as she takes up the Christe eleison cantilena from the Kyrie of Mozart’s Mass in her recording with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.

Hofbauer’s singing remains consistently seamless as she draws the vocal melodies over the top of the accompaniment. It is the more telling, then, when she breaks up the phrases of Ad te suspiramus in the F major Salve Regina to express the sighs referred to in the text. For the Salve Regina in C minor she sounds, appropriately, more subdued. The movements are here less differentiated from each other. There is a more prominent bloom to the acoustic in the Et Jesum benedictum movement. Presumably this was edited in from another take.

For the extract from the Tenebrae settings, Hofbauer sings in a more direct manner which is appropriate for the sparser texture of this first Lezione from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. She reserves a more sensuous approach for the melismas which are spun out on the Hebrew words. These will remind listeners of Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres. The cantata Il Figliuol Prodigo, relating the Biblical parable of the prodigal son, is also suitably sombre. Even so, Hofbauer could have shaded the music with a little more variety. That is rarely a problem in her direction of Ensemble &cetera, whose sound is glossy and poised, providing additional light to the performances, not least in their graceful interpretation of a Concerto Grosso by Leo’s one-time rival Francesco Durante. In two of Leo’s toccatas for harpsichord, Markus Hünniger’s performances are nicely sprung. The Toccata No. 2 availing itself of a liberal amount of rubato.

This is a delightful recording of some attractively idiomatic music which will appeal to fans of the Baroque.

Curtis Rogers

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