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Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743 - 1805): Stabat mater

Dorothee Mieldsa, soprano
Salagon Quartett; Miriam Shalinsky, double bassa

rec: July 8 - 10, 2016, Stuttgart, SWR Funkstudio Berg
Carus - 83.470 (© 2017) (72'08")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Boccherini
Score Mendelssohn
Score Mozart

Luigi BOCCHERINI: Stabat mater in f minor (G 532); Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Salve Regina in E flat (MWV C 2); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): String quartet in E flat (KV 428 / 421b)

Christine Busch, Lisa Immer, violin; Sebastian Wohlfarth, viola; Gesine Queyras, cello

Passiontide is one of the most important celebrations in the ecclesiastical year of the Christian church. This is reflected by the large repertoire, which has been written from the early centuries until our own time. Today many pieces of this kind are performed during Passiontide. Among them are settings of the Stabat mater. This hymn dates from the 13th century and has been attributed to a whole number of authors, but we still don't know for sure who wrote it.

It was not always part of the liturgy. At the end of the 15th century the Stabat mater became part of the Feast of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a celebration which was instigated by the Council of Cologne in 1423. But the Council of Trent (1545-1563) removed it from the liturgy. It was on the orders of Pope Benedict XII in 1727 that the Stabat mater was again included in the liturgy and became a part of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin. The fact that for about 150 years the Stabat mater was excluded from the liturgy didn't prevent composers setting this text. Such settings were probably mostly intended for private performances, for instance as part of the celebrations of the fraternities, which existed in Italy since the Middle Ages. An example is Antonio Vivaldi's setting for alto solo, which was written for the Congregation of the Brescia Oratorio.

The best-known Stabat mater from the 18th century is the one by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. 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. Almost instantly Pergolesi's setting became very famous. It was praised for its emotional character, but also, in the words of the French composer Sébastien de Brossard, "its profoundly learned harmony". However, it also met stern criticism, especially as it was considered too strongly influenced by opera.

Pergolesi's Stabat mater was not only popular, but it was also influential. In many later settings the traces of Pergolesi's work can be noted. That is also the case with the Stabat mater from the pen of Luigi Boccherini. It dates from 1781, when the composer was acting as compositore e virtuoso di camera of Infante Don Luis Antonio, brother of King Charles III of Spain. The Infante had a string quartet as his disposal, and in the person of Boccherini a virtuosic cellist entered his service and joined them. This resulted in a large number of string quintets with two cello parts, one of which was to be played by Boccherini himself. This also explains the rather uncommon scoring of the Stabat mater: soprano, two violins, viola and two low basses, the second of which can be played either by a cello or a double bass. It seems likely that the solo part was intended for Boccherini's wife, Clementina Pellicia. The work was not printed, but when in 1800 Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon's brother), who acted as French ambassador in Spain, became his patron, Boccherini arranged his Stabat mater for three solo voices and orchestra; this version was published in 1801.

Boccherini's Stabat mater is divided into eleven sections. Some of them include two or three verses, such as 'Eja mater, fons amoris'. This is the central section, not just numerological - it is preceded and followed by five sections - but also in content. Here the protagonist directly addresses Mary: "O mother, fount of love, make me feel the strength of thy grief, so that I may mourn with thee. / Make my heart burn with love for Christ, my God, so that I may please him. / Holy mother, do this for me: fix the wounds of thy crucified Son deeply in my heart". Its importance is emphasized by the prominent role of the first cello, undoubtedly intended to be played by the composer himself.

However, the other sections are in no way less expressive. The work opens and closes with sections in f minor, a clear reference to Pergolesi's setting in the same key. The sixth section I just mentioned is in E flat, one of the parallel keys. The second section, 'O quam tristis et afflicta', opens in dramatic fashion. In the third, 'Quae moerebat et dolebat', we notice the influence of opera; it includes quite some coloratura. The fourth section includes two verses, which are set as recitatives. The seventh section consists of three verses; the first and third show a strong sense of urgency, with some tremolo figures in the strings. The second verse - "Make me truly weep with thee" - is dominated by Seufzer. The tenth section is lively and has dramatic traits: "Inflamed and burning, may I be defended by thee, O Virgin, at the day of judgment". The last section includes descending figures and minor chords, but at the end the music turns to F major. This is a graphic illustration of the text: "When my body dies, let my soul be granted the glory of heaven." The piece ends in the same vein, with a simple "Amen", sung to an ascending figure and repeated two times.

Dorothee Mields and the Salagon Quartet deliver a very impressive performance. Ms Mields's singing is subtle and differentiated. Here and there she applies some vibrato, clearly deliberately, as elsewhere she completely avoids it. That is the case, for instance, in the central part of the seventh section, and as a result the Seufzer come off perfectly. Also impressive is her use of dynamics, for instance the subtle messa di voce on "plangere" (weep) in the eighth section. The more dramatic passages are very well realised too; dynamics and coloratura are immaculate. In a piece of this character and this scoring the blending of voice and strings is essential, and here that aspect is exactly right. The strings realise the instrumental parts with much sensitivity towards the text and the character of Ms Mields's voice. This is definitely one of the best performances of Boccherini's Stabat mater available right now.

The Stabat mater is not very long, and therefore other pieces are needed to fill the disc. What to choose? The Ensemble 415, which recorded the Stabat mater with Agnès Mellon (Harmonia mundi, 1992), added two string quintets. Capriola Di Gioia (Aeolus, 2012) performed further vocal and instrumental pieces by Boccherini, and others have added music connected to the Virgin Mary by other composers. The additional material on this disc is quite original. The Stabat mater is followed by Mozart's String Quartet in E flat (KV 428 / 421b), one of the so-called 'Haydn quartets'. The choice of this quartet is partly inspired by the key of E flat, also the key of the central section of the Stabat mater. However, the mood of the first two movements - allegro non troppo and andante con moto - fits that of Boccherini's piece, especially due to Mozart's harmonic experiments and his frequent use of chromaticism. The remaining two movements are of a more uplifting character and constitute a nice contrast with the previous two. That comes off quite nicely in the performance of the Salagon Quartett, whose minimal use of vibrato creates a optimum transparency, which allows the listener to follow the various voices and their interplay. The dynamic differences are subtle, but effective.

The closing piece is a little-known composition by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a setting of the Salve Regina, one of the four Marian antiphons. The reasons to choose this piece are obvious: it is connected to the Virgin Mary, it is in E flat again, and its scoring is exactly the same as that of Boccherini's Stabat mater: soprano and string quintet. In this case the lowest part is intended for the double bass; that is the reason that the second string bass in Boccherini is also played on that instrument rather than a second cello. Whereas in Boccherini's work the strings have some independence, here the soprano has the lead and the strings are supporting her. The work is in three sections; the central section is more energetic, certainly inspired by the text. I don't know any other recording, and here again Dorothee Mields delivers an incisive performance. The blending between voice and strings is excellent.

This is a very fine disc, and even if you have a good performance of Boccherini's Stabat mater in your collection, you should add this one, as Ms Mields's performance will be hard to surpass. Mendelssohn's Salve Regina is a nice bonus.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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