Durante: Requiem

Francesco Durante: Requiem in C minor, Organ Concerto in B flat
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Soloists from The Sixteen, Oxford Baroque
Stephen Darlington, Clive Driskill-Smith
Coro COR16147. 63’27

Durante: Requiem in C, Organ Concerto in B flat.

Better known as a teacher (of the likes of Pergolasi, Jommelli, and Piccini), the compositions of Francesco Durante (1684-1755) have been rather overlooked since his death. Born near Naples, he studied with A. Scarlatti and (possibly) Pasquini and spent a brief time in Rome before returning to Naples where he became musical director of a number of conservatories; by that time extending their original 16th century remit from the care of orphans to include specialist teaching for paying music students. Although some commentators complimented Durante on his compositions, they tended to focus on his “correct writing” and his facility with harmony and counterpoint, factors which go to make this Requiem so fascinating.

The Requiem in C minor is thought to have been first performed in S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli in Rome in 1746, although there is some doubt as to whether this is the ‘Requiem Mass for Philip V of Spain’ known to have been performed in that church in September of that year. Although it was never formally published, its popularity is attested to by the fact that there are 50 or more sources throughout Europe, ranging from the 1746 autograph to a copy made as late as 1871. For this recording, Stephen Darlington consulted 14 of the surviving manuscripts to produce a new edition.

Durante’s skill in contrapuntal and rather academic writing is evident, but the musical style goes well beyond mere scholarly skill. Shorn of the excrescences of the Baroque era, his music points towards, but doesn’t quite reach, the Classical style; but without falling neatly into any of the named styles that came between the Baroque and Classical era. It is a most attractive piece, with some delightful instrumental colourings and word painting. And for those who like such things, there are some clever contrapuntal devices, notably a double canon in Pleni sunt coeli. The vocal solos draw some modest inspiration from the operatic style of the period, but the choruses are generally more ‘sacred’ in style. Two horn players join the string orchestra, but are only used occasionally, most tellingly in the Tuba mirum.

It is written for a five-part choir, on this recording with boys voices on top, providing a far more ‘authentic’ sound than choirs with sopranos on top. Rather than drawing the five soloists from the choir, a small percentage of The Sixteen have been drafted in (Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, William Purefoy, Mark Dobell, and Ben Davies). Of course, many soloists can be found who happen to sing in one of Britain’s many top professional choirs, but the specific description here is no doubt related to the fact that the recording is produced and published by The Sixteen’s own record company.  The two sopranos work very well in several duets, both having very impressive voices, although the first soprano (who has the most prominent solo role in the piece) occasionally has slightly too much vibrato for my own taste, as does the countertenor, in the later case causing his voice to be slightly too prominent in consort settings. But apart form those minor quibbles; the singing is excellent from choir and soloists. And it is good to hear the distinctive sound of well-regulated boys’ voices taking the treble line. I wonder how many of them will be able to add The Sixteen to their CVs in later life.

As well as his commendable detective work in preparing the score, Stephen Darlington draws an outstanding performance from the musicians, young and old and draws out the best from Durante’s music, avoiding the temptation to overdo any of the dramatic moment. The sotto voce ending is magical. Oxford Baroque include many of the ‘usual suspects’ from the pool of top professional period instrument performers, and makes an impressively coherent sound.

The organ concerto that concludes this recording is in very sharp contrast to the Requiem, its three short movements taking us well away from the mood of the Requiem. Bouncy and spirited, with lively solo passagework for the organ (generally playing on its own, rather than with the orchestra) this is a lovely example of the mid 18th century Italian instrumental concerto style. It is unlikely to have been played at the conclusion of a Requiem Mass. The elegant central Grave weaves gentle filigree melodic fragments around a harmonically expressive accompaniment. Clive Driskill-Smith’s excellent playing demonstrates a meticulous control of touch and articulation on an attractive sounding little continuo organ – not the easiest of things to play. He also provided very effective organ continuo support in the Requiem.

 

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