Nicola Porpora is likely best known not for his chamber music, but his role as a teacher and opera composer in 18th century Italy. Connected with the castrato Farinelli, he did achieve fame during his life as a composer and singing teacher. His fortune, however, forced him to relocate many times, eventually returning to his home in Naples after a stint in London.
Steck and Rieger have made a number of recordings together of virtuosic violin sonatas with basso continuo, and this is among them, however I have only recently acquired the recording (via iTunes). Among these recordings, the one of sonatas by Pisendel is particularly strong.
In this recording both performers are located center-right in the stereo image, likely with Steck on violin positioned in front of Rieger on a pedal harpsichord. From his opus 12 collection, the duo have selected a series of six sonatas, each which follow a 4 movement, slow-fast, slow-fast structure. Stylistically, it's difficult to put one's finger on the Porpora style. There is an over-wrought among of trills and ornaments both in the violin part and the basso continuo part; otherwise I'd wager that the style is more "German" or "Dresden" than "Italian." I hear whiffs of Pisendel, for sure, and also Bach and Handel. The resulting style, however, is a tad on the fussy side, which is no criticism of Steck and Rieger. The fussiness is in the writing.
Porpora's harmonic language is not particularly modern, however, a few modulations to a dominant key seem to hint at what would come later in the galant and classical styles. His writing for the violin line, however, lack lyricism when so many ornaments are required, again, giving off whiffs of the rococo. Or maybe late Leclair?
That all said, there's also some virtuosity in his writing, which Steck takes full advantage of which proper theatrical flair. Both players, in fact, are alumni of Musica antiqua, Köln, and there's a lot to be said about the "sound" of Steck's violin, especially when he really digs into the notes for accents, that reminds me of Goebel's. The style is strong and confident, but never to the point of pushing the style outside of historical bounds (as far as we might guess).
Opening movements can be a little more free, stylistically. In the opening to no. 12 (and other openings), the use of double stops is present in the violin line, mostly, to add gravitas and harmony. Not unlike a recitative, the tempo can be handled with rubato. Steck and Rieger do a good job in this department.
In the sonatas for violin and harpsichord by Bach, the right hand is written out for the keyboard player, taking on a melody function. Porpora's writing is a combination of pure basso continuo and written-out parts.
Porpora's writing isn't consistently good with both invention and violin figures. That is to say, at times the harmonic progression and everything on top in the melody line work well (inventio), but at other times, it doesn't, and lots of notes from the violin make me think that we're supposed to be paying attention to all the sweat on his (or her) brow...
And so, Porpora was, after all, not remembered as a serious violin composer. If his lines for violin mirrored those for singers, they had to have quite the dexterity. For the lack in some parts of inspired writing, there are enough surprises and virtuosic luster together to offer interest to today's listener for those already familiar with the other composer's sonatas I have mentioned.
As a collector of baroque violin music, I'm glad as accomplished musicians as Steck and Rieger chose to record this music. The pedal harpsichord, for one, was a nice treat in this recording. For as much as I have read about it and seen it, I think this may be the first recording I own with one participating. It's bass is not profound, but is rather akin to octaves being used in the left hand at times.
Without liner notes for this recording, I am not sure if Porpora requested such an instrument. But it helps with the absence of a second instrument in the basso continuo.