musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI: Stabat mater - Johann Sebastian BACH: Cantatas BWV 54 & 170

Lucy Crowe, sopranoc; Tim Mead, altoab
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates

rec: April 2016, London, All Saints Church, East Finchley
Harmonia mundi - HMM 907589 (© 2017) (64'16")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Bach
Score Pergolesi

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170)a; Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54)b; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Stabat mater in f minorc

Patrick Beaugiraud, oboe d'amorea; Bojan Cicicac, Simon Jones, Catherine Martinb, violin; Jordan Bowronb, Elitsa Bogdanovab, Jane Rogersac, viola; Jonathan Rees, cello; Timothy Amherst, double bass; Joseph McHardy, harpsichord; Silas Wollston, organ

The Stabat mater is one of the most popular texts associated with Passiontide. 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. 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. These feasts are celebrated at the Friday before Palm Sunday and the third Sunday in September.

In the course of history many settings of this text have been written, even though for about 150 years it was not part of the Catholic liturgy. Today the setting by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is by far the most famous. Every year it is sung across the world, and not only at Passiontide, and it is frequently recorded. It ranks among the most popular vocal works of the 18th century. If every new recording has to compete with so many others in the catalogue, there is always the temptation to do things differently, at all cost. That is the case with another evergreen: Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and also with Pergolesi's Stabat mater. Unfortunately the performance under review here has not escaped this temptation. Some sections are performed in a very fast tempo; one example is 'Quae moerebat et dolebat', which as a result is rather superficial. Why is the closing chord in the basso continuo of the section 'Quis est homo' ("et flagellis subditum") held so long and leads it attacca to the next section? 'Fac, ut ardeat cor meum' again ends with a long-held chord; I can't figure out any reason for that. On the closing word "filii" (Fac, ut portem Christi mortem) Tim Mead sings an extended cadenza, and again I don't see why this word should be emphasized that way. In the ornamentation department the singers also tend to exaggerate. It mostly doesn't serve the expression. I have heard both singers before, and for me they rank among the better interpreters of early music. Overall they are a good match here. But the duos are damaged by the vibrato of both singers, which is much more than an ornament. It is quite sad, that, despite the number of recordings in the catalogue, there are so few, which really satisfy. A couple of years ago I reviewed the recording of Julia Lezhneva and Philippe Jaroussky, and that one comes pretty close to being the ideal interpretation. The main shortcoming is the size of the orchestra I Barocchisti, with no fewer than eight violins. Considering that this work was performed in probably rather intimate surroundings - the meetings of the Neapolitan confraternity Knights of the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows - a performance with one instrument per part, as is the case in the present recording, seems the most appropriate.

As the Stabat mater is a rather short work, what else could one perform to achieve a decent playing time? I don't know what solutions have been taken by the many performers; the recording of Lezhneva and Jaroussky includes two psalm settings by Pergolesi. I would think that it must be possible to find some other settings of the Stabat mater, even by other Neapolitan composers. David Bates has opted for a most unusual selection of works: two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is not explained in the booklet, but it is mentioned that Bach knew Pergolesi's Stabat mater and adapted it to a German paraphrase of Psalm 51 (Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083). Could this text - Psalm 51 is one of the penitential psalms, specifically associated with Lent - be the reason to choose cantatas BWV 54 and 170, which also are about sin and its effect on everyday human life?

Mark Seow opens his liner-notes with a rather odd statement. "There is some disagreement among scholars as to the origin of Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54. The general consensus, however, is that Bach wrote this cantata for Oculi Sunday and it was first performed on 4 March 1714." As long as there is "some disagreement" there can be no "general consensus". Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, does indeed rank it among the cantatas for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, known as Sunday Oculi. That is in line with the assignment of the libretto's author, Georg Christian Lehms, the librarian of the court of Darmstadt. However, he adds that "the content is of a very general nature, and the sources of the cantata include no reference to a specific liturgical occasion. Nor is there general agreement among scholars as to its date of origin beyond the general fact that it clearly originated during Bach's Weimar years." The text can be connected to the Gospel reading of Sunday Oculi, but also of the 7th Sunday after Trinity. However, in both cases the connection is too loose to draw any conclusions from that. It is a rather short work: two arias embracing a recitative. The scoring is also simple: alto, two violins, two violas and bc. The fact that the viola part is split indicates that it is an early work, as a five part instrumental texture is typical of the 17th century. It is a highly expressive piece. The first aria - "Resist sin indeed, or else its poison takes hold upon you" - begins with hammering chords in the strings. The performance is very disappointing. The playing of the strings is feeble and colourless, and lacks any expression. Unfortunately Tim Mead doesn't do anything with the text. On long notes he doesn't make any dynamic differences. Nothing is done with words like "Gift", "Satan" or "schänden". The recitative is too strict in time and not speechlike. The closing aria is too fast and rather superficial.

The other cantata is one of Bach's most famous. Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) dates from 1726 and is assigned for the 6th Sunday after Trinity. In that year Bach composed several cantatas for an alto soloist, probably because he had a specially gifted singer at his disposal. The text was again written by Georg Christian Lehms, who published it as part of a collection of cantata librettos in 1711. The text includes some strong contrasts, especially between the first and the second aria. Notable in this cantata is the obbligato role of the organ. It is played here - as is common practice - on a small positive organ. The use of a larger organ, such as Bach had at his disposal, offers more opportunities to adapt the registration to the Affekte of such an aria. It is one of the few shortcomings of this performance, because overall Tim Mead is much better here than in BWV 54. He uses again too much vibrato, but it is far less obtrusive than elsewhere. There is a bit too much legato singing and playing in the opening aria, but otherwise this is done rather well. In the second aria Bach omits the basso continuo; "the absence of thoroughbass characterizes the 'perverted hearts that are so very contrary to You, my God!' The melodic material is pervaded by sharp suspended dissonances" (Dürr). It is given a strongly expressive performance, and the text receives much attention. The same is the case in the two recitatives, which are sung in a much more declamatory manner than in BWV 54. The uplifting nature of the closing aria comes off very well; again the obbligato organ part suffers from the use of a small organ.

This disc leaves a mixed impression. I don't find the combination of Pergolesi's Stabat mater and the two cantatas by Bach very convincing. The former work is available in better recordings; this performance is too much an attempt to do things differently. As far as Bach is concerned, the performance of cantata BWV 170 is one of the better ones available, but BWV 54 is a flop. Whether one cantata is enough to add this disc to your collection is up to you.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Tim Mead
La Nuova Musica

CD Reviews