musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725): Stabat mater

Emma Kirkby, sopranob; Daniel Taylor, altob; Francis Colpron, recordera
Theatre of Early Music
rec: August 26 - 29, 2003, London, Church St-Jude-on-the-Hillb; May 19, 2003, Mirabel (Québec), Église Saint-Augustina
ATMA - ACD2 2237 (51'03")

Concerto XXI for recorder, 2 violins and bca; Stabat mater for soprano, alto, 2 violins and bcb

Adrian Butterfieldb, Hélène Plouffe, Olivier Braulta, violin; Susie Napper, cello; Peter Buckokeb, Pierre Cartiera, Jeremy Gordonb, double bass; Sylvain Bergeronb, lute; Nicholas Kraemerb, Alexander Weimanna, organ

The Stabat mater is one of the most frequently used texts in the history of music. Numerous composers of the renaissance and baroque eras have set music to this text about Mary watching her son suffering at the cross. It has been given various functions in Roman Catholic liturgy, as a sequence, a hymn and an antiphon.

Alessandro Scarlatti composed his setting of this text in 1724. It was commissioned by the fraternity of the Cavalieri della Virgine dei Dolori which honoured the Virgin Mary every year by the performance of the Stabat mater during the Lenten season. In 1736 it commissioned a new setting from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. His setting was going to completely overshadow Alessandro Scarlatti's.

There are a number of similarities between these two settings. The vocal scoring is identical: soprano and alto. Both composers have set the text in the form of a cantata, divided into sections. And both compositions are written in the same key: c minor.
There are some differences as well. In Scarlatti's setting the voices are accompanied by 2 violins and basso continuo, whereas Pergolesi adds a part for the viola. Almost all sections in both settings are written in the form of an aria, but Scarlatti makes use of the accompanied recitative twice ('Fac ut portem' and 'Fac me cruce').
Scarlatti has divided the text into four units, which all end with a duet: the fourth section (Quae moerebat), the eighth (Vidit suum), the twelfth (Tui nati vulnerati) and the last (Quando corpus). The last section is divided into two parts, the second of which is a polyphonic setting of the word 'Amen'. This last part is only the second with the tempo indication 'allegro'; the other one is the soprano aria 'Virgo virginum'.

The challenge for a composer in setting a text like the Stabat mater is to avoid monotony. Scarlatti does so in particular by the variation in tempo: the 18 sections contain 12 different tempo indications. Some other tools Scarlatti uses in this setting are displayed right from the beginning, in the very first section. It contains many modulations, and there are quite a number of dissonant chords. Another feature of this setting is the use of pauses between words, or even syllables, for instance 'tre-me-bat' (Quae moerebat et dolebat). The rhetorical device of the suspiratio (a sighing motif) frequently appears in this setting as well. Melismas are used to illustrate words about suffering, like 'dolentem' (Cujus animam). And the scourging is also vividly depicted in the music ("flagellis" in 'Pro peccatis suae gentis').

I am sorry to say that these devices Scarlatti uses to express the text are never fully exploited here. Apart from the fact that in my view the voices of Emma Kirkby and Daniel Taylor are just too cool for this music and lack passion and warmth, one of the most serious shortcomings is the lack of dynamic contrast. The frequent sighing motifs could make a far stronger impact if the singers had applied the messa di voce, for instance. And the melismatic passages also suffer from a lack of variety in dynamics. This is also characteristic of the way the instrumental parts are realised.

The addition of a concerto for recorder (originally written for transverse flute) is rather odd. There are enough vocal pieces by Scarlatti which would have made a far more logical addition to the programme. And a duration of just 51 minutes is too short for a full price disc anyway.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

CD Reviews