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The Stabat mater in Italy and Spain

[I] Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI, Antonio VIVALDI: Stabat mater
Samuel Mariño, sopranoac; Filippo Mineccia, altoad
Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal
Dir: Marie Van Rhijn
rec: June 19 0 20, 2020, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS033 (© 2020) (77'19")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Score Pergolesi
Scores Vivaldi

Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Stabat mater in f minor (P 77)a; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for violin, organ, cello, strings and bc in C (RV554a)b; In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626)c; Stabat mater in f minor (RV 621)d

Josef Zak (solob), Sandrine Dupé, Koji Yoda, Stefan Plewniak, Katarzyna Kalinowska, Anna Markova, violin; Myriam Bulloz, Alexandra Brown, viola; Alice Coquart, cello (solob); Davide Vittone, double bass; Pierre Rinderknecht, theorbo, guitar; Marie Van Rhijn, organ (solob)

[II] Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI, Juan Francés DE IRIBARREN ECHEVARRÍA: "Contrafacta"
María Espada, soprano; Carlos Mena, alto
Orquestra Barroca de Sevilla
Dir: Enrico Onofri
rec: Oct 2017, Sevilla, Iglesia de San Pedro de Alcántara
Passacaille - PAS 1094 (© 2021) (58'18")
Liner-notes: E/F/ES; lyrics - translations: E/ES
Cover & track-list

Juan Francés DE IRIBARREN ECHEVARRÍA (1699-1767): Ave Maria; Ego dormivi; Ego sum panis vivus; Lamentación 2a del Viernes Santo; Sabia extensión; Te invocamus; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI, arr Juan Francés DE IRIBARREN ECHEVARRÍA: Stabat mater in f minor (P 77)

Enrico Onofri, Alexis Aguado, violin; Kepa Artetxe, viola; Diana Vinagre, cello; Ventura Rico, double bass; Alejandro Casal, harpsichord, organ

The Stabat mater is one of the most frequently-set texts in the history of music. Numerous composers of the renaissance and baroque eras have written music to this text about Mary watching her Son suffering on the cross. It has been given various functions in Roman Catholic liturgy, as a sequence, a hymn and an antiphon. At the end of the 15th century it 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. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) removed it from the liturgy. However, the fact that the Stabat mater wasn't part of the liturgy didn't prevent composers from writing music on this text, mostly for private use, for instance the celebrations of the fraternities which existed in Italy since the Middle Ages. It was on the orders of Pope Benedict XII in 1727 that the Stabat mater was again included in the liturgy. It became a part of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows.

Several settings have become famous and are frequently performed and recorded. From the renaissance period, the Stabat mater by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is the best-known. The discs under review here focus on two Italian settings that date from the first half of the 18th century, but are very different in character. I don't know whether the settings by Pergolesi and Vivaldi have ever been recorded back to back before. It makes much sense, though, as both composers are from Italy and Vivaldi's setting is for an alto, which is also one of the voices required in Pergolesi's setting. Moreover, from a very practical point of view, Pergolesi's setting is too short to fill a disc, and it is not easy to find something fitting. Vivaldi's Stabat mater is a perfect option.

Pergolesi's Stabat mater dates from 1736, the last year of his short life, when he was suffering from tuberculosis. It was commissioned by the fraternity of the Cavalieri della Virgine dei Dolori in Naples, which honoured the Virgin Mary every year by the performance of the Stabat mater during Lent. Pergolesi's composition was to replace the setting by Alessandro Scarlatti, which was written for the fraternity in 1724.

Almost instantly Pergolesi's setting became very famous. This was probably partly due to the fact that it was written in the year the composer died, creating a kind of myth around Pergolesi's personal motifs - just like Mozart's Requiem. However, there were also musical reasons for its popularity. The French philosopher (and composer) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was impressed by the emotional character of Pergolesi's work and wrote that the first stanza was "the most perfect and most touching to have come from the pen of any musician". The French composer Charles de Brossard, who was a strong admirer of Italian music, called it "the masterwork of Latin music. There is hardly any work more highly praised than this one for its profoundly learned harmony." It must have been this "learned harmony" which attracted Johann Sebastian Bach, who reworked it to fit a German text.

However, it was also the subject of criticism, especially because of its operatic character. The way Pergolesi set the text can still make people knit their brows. It is therefore important to understand the way the text is depicted in the music. As the musicologist Simon Heighes observed, it is exactly the galant Neapolitan operatic style - of which Pergolesi was one of the most prominent representatives - which allowed to set the text of the Stabat mater in this manner. "The directness of expression and transparency of texture which served him well in the theatre were now used to bring immediate impact and melodic variety to the long lament of the Stabat mater". This could well be one of the main reasons for its unbroken popularity. One doesn't need to sit through endless dacapo arias with extended coloratura. There are many moments where the text is graphically illustrated in the music, for instance the scourging of Jesus (Quis est homo) or the burning of the heart of the faithful (Fac ut ardeat cor meum). The scoring for two voices which are rather close in tessitura allows for an expressive use of harmony. This effect manifests itself in the very first section. The harmonic tension gives way to the affetti the text aims to communicate. This scoring for soprano and alto also has an unmistakable theatrical effect.

Vivaldi's Stabat mater is more modest in proportions and more introverted in character. The scoring is for alto, strings and basso continuo. It was written in 1711 and was first performed at the Feast of the Seven Sorrows in Brescia the next year, on 18 March. Vivaldi set only ten of the twenty verses, which he divided over eight sections. The work closes with an extended setting of the "Amen". Only this section requires a fast tempo (allegro); the other movements are in a slow tempo, which lends them a meditative character. Whereas Pergolesi's setting is theatrical and shows his credentials as a composer of opera, Vivaldi's version is devoid of operatic traits.

Given that Pergolesi's Stabat mater was first performed by two castrati, a performance by a male soprano and male alto is quite 'authentic', even though their voices are not identical with those of real castratos. Whereas we are used to male altos in early music, male sopranos are still very rare, and the specimens of this voice type that I have heard over the years have not given me much satisfaction. The only exception is the German Philipp Mathmann. Samuel Mariño has been greeted with much enthusiasm, but on the basis of what I have heard in concert recordings and his performance here, I can't quite understand that. Now and then I noted an unpleasant sharpness in the high register, especially in fast passages and at full volume. The habit of singing the highest notes with full force is questionable from a stylistic point of view anyway. Filippo Mineccia's performance has the same shortcoming. Both also use too much vibrato. Mineccia makes a better impression in the Stabat mater, which attests to his qualities I have noted in my reviews of previous recordings. Mariño is the soloist in another motet by Vivaldi, In furore iustissimae irae. This motet is one of three that Vivaldi composed in the 1720s during visits to Rome. It is a motet per ogni tempo, which means that it is not connected to a specific time in the ecclesiastical year. However, its text fits well into this programme. The first aria says: "In the wrath of thy most righteous anger, you from heaven make me mighty. Since you can punish me when guilty, my very crime shows you as kindly". Here Vivaldi does not hold back, as this has the traces of an operatic rage aria. Here Mariño is more convincing than in Pergolesi.

Lastly, we get an instrumental piece, Vivaldi's Concerto in C (RV 554a), which includes solo parts for violin, cello and organ. It receives a fine performance here. The ensemble also makes a good impression in the vocal works. Whereas in many recordings the string parts in the works on this disc are performed with one instrument per part, here the ensemble comprises six violins and two violas. Marie Van Rhijn, in her liner-notes, states that "[the] instrumental forces used here are similar to those employed in Italian churches in the first half of the 18th century, as we know from the lists of musicians on the payroll, such as those preserved in the registers of the church of San Petronio in Bologna". I am not quite convinced: Bologna's San Petronio does not seem to me the standard for Italy at large. Moreover, it seems rather unlikely that there was a kind of standard at all. Van Rhijn also discusses the issue of the pitch. "The choice of pitch for this recording is a compromise between Naples, where the pitch was very low - around 392 Hz, and Venice with higher pitched organs bordering on 440 Hz. So I chose a mean pitch of 415 Hz". I don't quite understand this. First, the two vocal pieces by Vivaldi were not performed in Venice, and therefore the pitch there is not very relevant. Second, the choice of a 'mean pitch' is probably unavoidable in a live performance, but in a studio production it shouldn't be a problem to change the pitch according to the repertoire.

The concept of this recording is interesting, but the performances are not fully satisfying.

Pergolesi's Stabat mater not only conquered Italy, but also disseminated across the continent. One of the most famous examples, as mentioned above, is the adaptation by Johann Sebastian Bach, who used the music for a setting of Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden. It also made its way to Spain. It influenced the sacred music written during the second half of the 18th century, and Luigi Boccherini's Stabat mater is unmistakably inspired by it. The second disc reviewed here sheds light on an interesting way Pergolesi's work was received. The title of this disc suggests that we get contrafacta of Pergolesi's piece here, but that is not entirely correct. A contrafactum is a piece whose text has been changed, but whose music has remained entirely or largely intact. However, the Stabat mater by Pergolesi/Iribarren has the same text as the original; the music has been slightly adapted, but to what extent is hard to say. More about that in a moment; first: who was Iribarren?

Juan Francés de Iribarren was born in Sanguësa (Navarre) and went to Madrid at the age of 14 or 15 to continue his musical education at the court. In 1717 he became first organist of Santa Iglesia in Salamanca. In 1733 he was appointed maestro de capilla of Málaga Cathedral, a post he held until his death. The total number of his compositions is estimated at 975. It is due to his brother Juan, friar at the nearby Augustinian monastery, that his oeuvre has been preserved so well. He arranged for the collection of manuscript scores to be delivered to the secretary of the cathedral chapter, as Iribarren had agreed before his death, on condition that, as a sign of its appreciation for his works, the chapter should not allow them to be lost or copied, or to be performed other than as part of services held at the cathedral, to prevent their becoming "vulgarised".

The Music Archive at the Málaga Cathedral holds five manuscript copies of Pergolesi's Stabat mater. It has been possible to establish 1746 as the latest date of arrival in Málaga of this work. The version performed here has been preserved in the form of separate instrumental parts; the score and the vocal parts are missing. Enrico Onofri, in his notes in the booklet, states: "This (...) is not a simple copy but a real reworking of the piece, one which frequently involves substantial changes in notes, instrumentation, metre, harmony, counterpoint and ornamentation, as well as dynamic markings and articulations; in some cases these are in direct opposition to other surviving source material". The parts used here also include later additions; those which could be identified as being inserted in the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed, but those dating from the decades after Iribarren's death have been retained "as evidence that this version of the Stabat mater was still in use at the Cathedral at Malaga during the Age of Enlightenment".

This leaves the problem of the vocal parts. They have been reconstructed, and the differences in the instrumental parts were incorporated. This version may be quite interesting, but I am not sure whether this makes much sense. The vocal parts are the heart of this work, and reconstructing them, basically without anything to go by, is debatable. We cannot be sure to what extent differences in the instrumental part were incorporated into the vocal parts by Iribarren himself. We simply don't know what exactly he has done. That strongly diminishes the value of this reconstruction. I also assume that many listeners will not immediately note the differences in the instrumental parts, unless they have a thorough knowledge of Pergolesi's work.

Iribarren's involvement in Pergolesi's Stabat mater does not stop here. The programme includes several motets which are based on fragments from it. These pieces are real contrafacta. Ego sum panis vivus is a motet and Sabia extensión a cantata, both for the Holy Sacrament. In the latter it is the aria which is based on Pergolesi; it is preceded by a newly-written recitative. Ego dormivi, a motet for Easter, and Te invocamus, a motet for the Holy Trinity, are both contrafacta.

The two original works are a motet on the text of the Ave Maria and the Lamentación 2a del Viernes Sancto. The latter is one of the 26 Lamentations that Iribarren has left. It is rather short and through-composed. The Hebrew letters are - as was customary - set as vocalises, but are not used to order the work into various sections. Within the short span of time this piece requires, Iribarren is able to achieve a high amount of expression. While I'm sceptical about the reconstruction of the Stabat mater in Iribarren's reworking, what's on offer here is top notch as far as the performance is concerned. I have seldom heard such a good and moving performance of Pergolesi's Stabat mater as here. María Espada and Carlos Mena both have extraordinarily beautiful voices which are a perfect match. The result is an interpretation that is stylistically fully convincing and also expressive. The other works are performed at the same high level, and the instrumentalists do everything right. Therefore, I don't hesitate to strongly recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

María Espada
Samuel Mariño
Filippo Mineccia
Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal
Orquestra Barroca de Sevilla

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