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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710 - 1736): Stabat mater

[I] Capriola di Gioia
Dir: Bart Naessens
rec: April 18 - 21, 2019, Brugge, Kapel Hof Bladelin
Evil Penguin Classic - EPRC 0035 (© 2020) (56'50")
Liner-notes: E/NL; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (c1671-1736): Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (Per il mar del pianto mio; Pompe inutili; Voglio piangere)a; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI: Stabat materab

Amaryllis Dieltiens, sopranoa; Clint van der Linde, altob; Lidewij van der Voort, Elise van der Wel, violin; Kaat De Cock, viola; Bernard Woltèche, cello; Margaret Urquhart, double bass; Jurgen De bruyn, lute, theorbo; Bart Naessens, organ

[II] Sandrine Piau, sopranoa; Christopher Lowrey, altob
Les Talens Lyriques
Dir: Christophe Rousset
rec: July 2018, Auvers-sur-Oise, Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Alpha - 449 (© 2019) (66'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Beatus virb; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI: Stabat materab; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Salve Regina in Ga

Gilone Gaubert, Josef Žák, Josépha Jégard, Karine Crocquenoy, Christophe Robert, Charlotte Grattard, Yuki Koike, Jean-Marc Haddad, Bérengère Maillard, Roldán Bernabé-Carrión, violin; Stefano Marcocchi, Delphine Grimbert, viola; Jérôme Huille, Marjolaine Cambon, Nils De Dinechin, cello; Gautier Blondel, double bass; Stéphane Fuget, harpsichord, organ

Score Pergolesi

Throughout history many composers have been attracted by the text of the Stabat mater. Its author is unknown, but it is assumed it was a Franciscan monk from the 13th century. 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. But the Council of Trent (1545-1563) removed it from the liturgy. That didn't prevent composers from setting this text, mostly for private use, for instance the celebrations of the fraternities which existed in Italy since the Middle Ages. Another famous example is Antonio Vivaldi's setting for alto solo, written for the Congregation of the Brescia Oratorio.

The most famous setting of all times is the one by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. It 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, 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 Stabat mater 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. But 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" (liner-notes to Erato - 319147 2>). 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 catalogue includes quite a number of recordings of different character. Some emphasize the dramatic aspects through an operatic approach, with the kind of voices usually involved in opera. Others opt for a more intimate style of performance, closer to the original circumstances. The two recordings under review here are more or less representatives of these opposing approaches.

Pergolesi's Stabat mater may not be a liturgical work, but it is certainly a devotional piece. That comes off very well in the performance by Capriola di Gioia. The two singers have no big voices, and focus on the expression of the text. They avoid incessant vibrato and extensive ornamentation, and in the duets they look for a miximum of blending, which is one of the strengths of this recording. It is probably impossible to say how many instruments were involved in the first performances, but the line-up in this recording, one instrument per part, could be well in accordance with the intentions of Pergolesi or the performance conditions in the gatherings of the confraternity. It only emphasizes the intimacy of this performance. On balance, I find this one of the most satisfying recordings of Pergolesi's Stabat mater that I have heard in recent years.

This work has achieved a kind of cult status, which explains that it is often not treated as a piece for the period of Lent or for Holy Week. Performances take place around the globe in various times of the year, often as part of a concert, together with compositions which are in no way connected to the Stabat mater's subject. That seems also to be the case with the second recording reviewed here. Although Christophe Rousset's performance concerns a studio recording, the pictures in the booklet suggest that it is the aftermath of a series of public concerts. This could also explain the opulent scoring of the instrumental ensemble. It comprises no fewer than ten violins, two violas and two cellos, plus a further cello in the basso continuo. This is a performance with rather big voices, featuring an operatic approach, which includes an incessant vibrato from both singers. In the duets they keep it under control, in the interest of blending, which is right, but they don't hold back in their respective solos. This results in a lack of stylistic coherence. Moreover, there are quite some exaggerated dynamic accents now and then, and some long notes are held excessively long. All in all, this recording leaves me utterly unsatisfied and lacks the emotional impact it is meant to have.

Performers have to decide which music to add, as the Stabat mater takes something between 35 and 40 minutes. Capriola di Gioia decided to perform three arias from one of Antonio Caldara's best-known works, the oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo, dating from shortly before 1700. Recently I reviewed a recording by Le Banquet Céleste; the review gives more information about this work. It is not dramatic in an operatic way, as there is hardly any action. Even so, the isolation of single arias from their context is problematic, and as a result, the three arias included here have not the impact they would have if they were part of a performance of the entire work. Amaryllis Dieltiens does sing the arias rather well, though; 'Pompe inutili', which has an obbligato part for cello - the instrument Caldara played himself - is particularly nice.

Rousset selected two pieces by other Neapolitan composers: Nicola Antonio Porpora and Leonardo Leo, who were both known as opera composers, although today their contributions to this genre are hardly ever performed. Porpora has become best known as singing teacher; the castrato Farinelli was one of his most famous pupils. Recently, some of his chamber cantatas have been recorded and several of his sacred works are also available on disc. His Salve Regina in G is not new to the catalogue, but still not really well-known. Although in its content it has nothing in common with the Stabat mater, it is directed towards the Virgin Mary, who is also the one whose emotions at the Cross are expressed in the Stabat mater. The text is divided into six different sections, and Porpora's setting has an unmistakable operatic character. That manifests itself right at the start in the opening section, with a very long melismatic coloratura on "Sal[ve]". The "salve" at the end is also set on a virtuosic coloratura. The second section is an example, where one may find that the music does not fit the text, as the phrase "To thee we cry, we banished children of Eve" has the tempo indication allegretto; Dinko Fabris, in his liner-notes, calls it "tarantella-like". It includes extended coloratura on "clamamus". The third section closes with a cadenza ("valle"). The word "suspiramus" is set to an ascending figure. This section includes various sighing figures (Seufzer). Sandrine Piau's performance is again marred by an incessant and pretty wide vibrato, which makes it hard to swallow, and which largely nullifies the expressive features of this work. Here the large line-up is probably less 'unauthentic', but still problematic for historical and stylistic reasons.

Leonardo Leo is today mainly known for some cello concertos, which represent a very minor part of his output, which is dominated by sacred and secular vocal music. Beatus vir is a setting of Psalm 111 (112). It is one of the Vesper Psalms, which explains that it has been set frequently. Leo's setting has the form of a motet for solo voice and strings, which was quite common at the time and which we also know from the oeuvre of Vivaldi (for instance his Nisi Dominus, also for alto). In this case the string parts are confined to two violins, which makes a line-up of more than one instrument per part even less plausible. According to Fabris, it is a piece in six sections, but here it takes seven tracks. For some inexplicable reason the text "Exortum est in tenebris lumen rectis; misericors et miserator et iustus" has been split into two tracks. Overall, there is here less of a clash between text and music, although the music of the first section may well be taken for an aria in which the protagonist expresses his feelings for his loved one. The third section includes three times the word "non"; two of them are emphasized through repetition. In the second half of the fourth section, it is up to the strings to illustrate the text: "The wicked shall see, and shall be angry; he shall gnash with his teeth and pine away". Beatus vir is a little-known piece, but quite beautiful. It seems that it has been recorded recently by another ensemble, but at least this part of the production is a substantial addition to the catalogue. Christopher Lowrey does substantially better than Sandrine Piau in Porpora. He has a nice voice, and his performance is certainly not devoid of expression. Unfortunately he uses quite some vibrato here and there; those passages, where he strongly reduces it and partly even avoids it altogether - such as in "Exortum est" mentioned above and in the doxology - come off so much better.

Leo's Beatus vir seems to me the only reason to purchase this disc, but that is probably a bit too much to ask, as this piece takes less than fourteen minutes.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Christopher Lowrey
Sandrine Piau
Les Talens Lyriques

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