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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710 - 1736): Stabat mater

Elin Manahan Thomas, sopranoa; Robin Blaze, altob; Ashley Solomon, transverse flutec; Jennifer Morsches, cellod

rec: Sept 23 - 25, 2009, London, St John the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood
Channel Classics - CCS SA 29810 ( 2010) (72'35")

Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in G (attr)c; Salve Regina in f minorb; Sinfonia for cello and bc in Fd; Stabat mater in f minorab

In comparison with the music scene at large the world of early music regularly sees recordings of unknown repertoire, sometimes by composers hardly anybody has ever heard of. But it has its own evergreens as well. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's Stabat mater in f minor is certainly one of them, and has been recorded many times before and will no doubt be recorded many times in the future. True, it is a fine work, and definitely a monument in music history, and its present-day fame reflects its fame in the 18th century.

But one wonders whether it is really necessary to record it over and over again. The reasoning of the recording of a composition should be in the work itself. For instance, when new data are discovered about the way the piece was performed in the composer's own time, or if a manuscript has been found in which that particular work appears in a different form. But as far as I know nothing of the sort is the case here. And one can hardly argue that previous recordings were technically deficient or completely missed the point in regard to the interpretation.

The only other sound reason for a new recording I can see is the performers coming closer to the heart of the composition and the intentions of the composer. But in recent recordings of the Stabat mater I haven't heard anything which was really an improvement in comparison to previous recordings. And this performance by Florilegium, with Elin Manahan Thomas and Robin Blaze, is no exception. In fact, in my view it falls rather short of the standard set by recordings which are already on the market.

Pergolesi's Stabat mater didn't only find approval, it was also criticised for being too strongly influenced by opera. There is no doubt that it has strong theatrical traits. That shouldn't result into a strongly operatic performance, like the one Fabio Biondi came up with. But the present recording is largely devoid of anytheatrical elements. I find this performance mostly pretty boring. Some movements are done rather well, for instance the first half of the duet 'Quis est homo' or 'O quam tristis et afflicta'. But dynamically the performance is too flat, both vocally and instrumentally. No, this isn't opera, but it is definitely more dramatic than this performance suggests. The voices od Elin Manahan and Robin Blaze blend well, but I find both of them too bland. The soprano also uses a slight, but continuous vibrato.

In comparison the Salve Regina in f minor is given a much better performance by Robin Blaze. In the first section his low notes are quite strong, which is not common among male altos. 'Ad te clamamus' is given an expressive performance, and so is the closing section, 'O clemens, o pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria'. This setting was originally written in c minor, and later transposed to f minor. The programme notes don't tell who made this version. In the article on Pergolesi in New Grove it is listed among the 'doubtful' compositions.

The list of doubtful and spurious works is pretty long, which is an indication that Pergolesi was so famous that publishers or other composers tried to increase sales of compositions by putting Pergolesi's name on them. One of the spurious compositions is also the Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in G. It is a nice work, and it is well played by Ashley Solomon and Florilegium, but one wonders why it is included in a programme devoted to music by Pergolesi. Or was it just because the ensemble's director needed a piece to participate in this project?

The Sinfonia for cello and bc in F seems to be a genuine composition by Pergolesi, one of the very few instrumental works whose authenticity is beyond doubt. It is written in the form of a sonata da chiesa, with four movements: comodo, allegro, adagio, allegro. Jennifer Morsch gives a lively and engaging performance.

Considering the disappointing performance of the Stabat mater it is hard to inequivocally recommend this recording.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

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Elin Manahan Thomas

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