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À Portuguesa – Iberian Concertos & Sonatas
William CORBETT (1680-1748)
Concerto alla Portuguesa in B flat major, Op VIII No 7 [9:28]
José António Carlos de SEIXAS
Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato in G minor [14:19]
Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato in A major [5:75]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata for harpsichord in G minor, K 8 [2:33]
Sonata for harpsichord in G major, K 13 [4:09]
Sonata for harpsichord in B minor, K 173 [4:44]
Charles AVISON (1709-1770)
Concerto grosso No 5 in D minor [8:06]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Quintettino Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid in D minor, Op 30 No 6 [15:47]
Orquestra Barocca Casa da Música/Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, Casa da Música, Porto, Portugal
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902337 [64:55]

With its eye-catching cover, and advertised content – Iberian Concertos & Sonatas – this new release on the Harmonia Mundi label looked the ideal pick-me-up as we leave behind one of the best summers in the UK and move into inevitably cooler autumn days. Hopefully the CD’s twenty or so tracks can still generate some sunshine, once the thermometer starts to drop.

Taking its title, À Portuguesa, from the opening work on the CD, No. 7 of William Corbett’s set of concerti grossi entitled Bizzarie universali, this recording suggests that we might as well be in Italy as in Spain or Portugal. The opening Allegro is certainly bright and sunny, but there is nothing distinctly ‘Iberian’ here; however, this is rather to be expected, given Spain’s and Portugal’s somewhat isolated status from the rest of Europe, and the fact that many of the musicians working there at the time were Italian. The work has a conventional slow movement, Largo e pia[no], in the relative minor, before launching into a sunny and attractive Allegro finale, which is all good fun, and very easy on the ear.

This is followed by the first of two Concertos a 4 con vv, e cimbalo obligato [sic] in G minor – for violins 1 and 2, viola, bass, and optional harpsichord – by Portuguese composer José António Carlos de Seixas. Despite the acclaim he received in his home country, Seixas has never enjoyed this kind of recognition internationally, despite some of the innovations he brought to the keyboard-concerto genre, and, unfortunately, his early demise at the age of 38 didn’t help either. There is a suitably busy-sounding opening Allegro, which is followed by a slow Adagio in the relative major. The concerto is then rounded off by an Allegro assai movement in triple time. The solo harpsichord part is certainly no pushover, but Andreas Staier plays with great gusto and flair, making light of the bristling technical difficulties, and always with the neatest of articulation. Here in the finale, while it still sounds much like the work of any Italian, there are just occasional hints of some Iberian influences creeping in.

The title of the two works by Seixas might seem strange, given that they are both harpsichord concertos. ‘E cimbalo obligato’ could be construed as, ‘and optional harpsichord’ which would seem ridiculous in a work where the harpsichord is the actual solo instrument. But, if we look at the printed score, we see an equally baffling heading: ‘Concerto a 5 Com Violinos e cravo’. The explanation would seem to be that Seixas is using two words to refer to the harpsichord – the more familiar ‘cimbalo’, derived from the Italian, and here the far-less-familiar word ‘cravo’. This Portuguese word has a diverse range of meanings, from horse-shoe nail to clove, and pimple to harpsichord, where, etymologically there is a back-connection with the French words ‘clavier’ (keyboard), and Latin ‘clavis’, meaning key. For Seixas, the solo harpsichord is ‘cravo’, so the optional ‘cimbalo’ would suggest a second harpsichord reinforcing harmony, as witnessed by the general employment of the ubiquitous harpsichord continuo at that time. If the solo harpsichord was not perhaps overly powerful, then it might be better to dispense with the optional continuo instrument – and, just for the sake of completeness, ‘com’ is the Portuguese equivalent of the Italian ‘con’, meaning ‘with’.

Staier now features three solo harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, who was in the service of the Portuguese court from 1719 to 1729, after which he left for Spain to serve his pupil Maria Barbara of Braganza, Princess of Asturias, and the future Queen of Spain. Staier makes a varied choice from the over 600 examples available, and opens with K 8 in G minor (Allegro), followed by K13 in G major, marked Presto, a typically virtuosic tour de force which Staier despatches seemingly effortlessly, and with great panache, before concluding the set with the slightly slower, and somewhat more subdued K 173 in B minor. As before, Staier shows himself in total command, in another performance of impeccable stylistic awareness and dexterity.

Then follows the second of the two Seixas Harpsichord Concertos (Concertos a 4), this time in the major key, and which really makes a great impression, despite it being just some five minutes long. The slow Adagio that follows features some poignant suspensions, and comes to rest on an imperfect cadence (half-close), before leading straight into the Giga finale which, while actually marked Allegro, is despatched at breakneck speed, but still manages to keep out of trouble for its little more than two minutes, maintaining an impeccable ensemble between soloists and orchestra throughout. Yet again though, it’s still more Italian than Iberian, taken overall.

English composer, Charles Avison, was born in Newcastle, where he was organist at St John the Baptist Church, and then at St Nicholas’s Church, later to become Newcastle Cathedral. He is probably best known for his 12 Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti, of which No 5 in D minor is the next track. A stately Largo opens the work and maintains the style throughout the first movement, before leading directly into an exciting Allegro, where the playing from the Orquestra Barocca Casa da Música is impressively taut and stylish, and their historically-informed interpretation on period instruments, or copies thereof, certainly adds greatly to the effect. This leads into a fugal Andante moderato, where the shadow of Handel, among others, is never far away, before another quick-moving Allegro rounds off this especially enjoyable light confection.

As the sound of the closing bars of the Avison disappears, nothing quite prepares the listener for what follows. I even thought my CD-player had suddenly malfunctioned, until I checked out the very informative and interesting sleeve note. Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid, or ‘Night music of the streets of Madrid’, was originally scored for two violins, viola, and two cellos. Boccherini left a fascinating commentary on this work which explains everything we hear, and the ‘programme’ behind each of the five short movements. The bizarre ‘pizzicatos’ that open the first movement (Ave Maria. Imitando il tocco dell’ Ave Maria della Parrochia) are, in fact, the bells of the parish church ringing the Angelus, while the following movement, (Minuetto), is to be played con asprezza (harshly) and squajalamente (clumsily), in order to suggest a ‘rough minuet performed by some blind men’ – a programmatic concept that brings to mind the works of Heinrich Biber, a century earlier. If there wasn’t anything particularly Iberian-sounding until now, Boccherini’s fascinating, and unusual work at least goes some way to redress the balance. The composer had used the march from the finale before, and, on this occasion, adds a set of variations to it. Again, the composer’s written instructions make his intentions abundantly clear – it is to start out very quietly in the distance, get increasingly louder until the soldiers are perhaps marching right past the window, and then end as softly as it began, once the soldiers are ensconced once more back at their barracks. The augmented players of the Orquestra Barocca Casa da Música produce a splendidly full and rich sound throughout, all of which is captured with the utmost fidelity on disc. They are clearly enjoying playing, and that enjoyment is apparent to the listener.

As I said at the start of this review, the CD cover is visually eye-catching and summery, but nor will the superb playing and absorbing choice of repertoire contained within disappoint, either.

Philip R Buttall


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