Francesco Feo's is not a name likely to be known to more than a minority of music lovers. Indeed there is but one CD of his anywhere in the current catalog: this one! Yet Feo (1691-1761) was one of the most celebrated Neapolitan composers of first half of the eighteenth century. From his twenties almost until his death he had an extended and illustrious career writing mostly choral music – operas, oratorios, cantatas, masses, passions, psalms, and canticles, among other works. So successful were various of these that he received commissions from other parts of Europe. Indeed, Burney wrote of Feo's works: "fire, invention, and force in the melody and expression in the words".
The quality of the music, then, ought not to come as much of a surprise: there is variety, a lightness of touch without any hint of descending into the trivial or the "incidental". Matthias Jung, the five soloists and Sächsiches Vocalensemble with the Batzdorfer Hofkapelle perform the Mass and Confitebor, a setting of Psalm 110, with style, freshness and vigor – yet devoid of any sense of naïveté or sensationalism. This does the "cause" of Neapolitan church music from the period much good since its reputation has too often been as showy and as sacrificing seriousness to operatic splendor.
These performances, while not lacking energy and direction, have just the right amount of dignity and weight. The music, unsurprisingly, doesn't have the breadth or depth of Bach, or even Vivaldi by comparison. But the way in which Jung and his forces treat it as straightforward yet pleasing music is surely a better than merely adequate reflection of the intentions of a composer, who appears to have begun his formal musical education comparatively young – in 1704, when only 13, at the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini.
Different movements are scored for different combinations of instruments. The brass play a prominent role. Strings are also to be heard throughout. In the second Kyrie, too, woodwind do a little more than add color and atmosphere to the feeling of humility. Similarly, soloists are supported by chorus (rarely the other way round); yet each has a separate role when the drama or intensity of the text demands it. It's clear that the text is also uppermost in conferring meaning on the interpretation. And it's a consistently clearly articulated text throughout.
Without allowing any threat of discontinuity to spoil the sense of structure of the music – the Mass in particular – these musicians carefully distinguish between block passages and more intricately fashioned solo and ensemble work. This has the effect of adding to the integrity of the composition.
This is particularly significant given the greater emphasis which composers in Feo's world gave to the Kyrie and Gloria, tending to let the other movements of the mass take care of themselves, so to speak. Those priorities are true only to a certain extent here. The other movements have just as much interest musically, if not quite the same impact. Jung and the performers have achieved a convincing balance by relying on the inner logic of the music… its tempi, rhythms and melodic development.
The CD is clearly recorded and comes with an equally matter-of-fact booklet with the text in Latin, German and English as well as a useful essay on the background and performer biographies etc. Feo is a neglected composer. This CD quietly makes the case for a closer look at his music; and for its separation from the rather tarnished reputation which late Baroque Neapolitan sacred choral writing has. Feo is no Mozart or Handel. But neither is he a mere curiosity. The persuasive and genuine painting of which he is capable is likely to grow on you. Give it a try.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.