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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710 - 1736): "Stabat mater"

Dorothea Röschmann, sopranoa; David Daniels, altob
Europa Galante
Dir: Fabio Biondi

rec: August 6 - 9 & 11 - 14, 2005, Brussels, Studio Flagey
Virgin Classics - 3 63340 2 (© 2006) (57'13")

Salve Regina in f minorb; Salve Regina in a minora; Stabat mater in F

Fabio Biondi, Andrea Rognoni, violin; Stefano Marcocchi, viola; Maurizio Neddeo, cello; Francisco José Montero, double bass; Giangiacomo Pinardi, theorbo; Paolo Poncet, organ

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's fame rests mainly on two compositions, the intermezzo La Serva padrona, and the Stabat mater which is recorded here. It is one of numerous settings of this medieval text by an unknown author, which Pergolesi wrote in 1736, during 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 the Lenten season. Pergolesi's composition was to replace the setting by Alessandro Scarlatti, which was written for the fraternity in 1724.

At the time the Stabat mater was part of the Roman Catholic liturgy again. 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.
But the fact that the Stabat mater wasn't part of the liturgy didn't hold composers back to write music on 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.

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.

But Pergolesi's Stabat mater also met criticism. "The modernity of the work, underlined by its rejection of the stile antico in favour of an unashamedly expressive style, very quickly gave rise to a debate in which Pergolesi's detractors criticised the piece as being too influenced by opera and having too many thematic links with arias from his intermezzi and commedie musicali", according to Frédéric Delaméa in the booklet. This seems to be the reasoning behind the very dramatic approach Fabio Biondi has chosen for this recording. This is reflected by the dynamic contrasts and the rallentandi. This way the Stabat mater comes close to opera. But is it highly questionable whether this piece is meant to be performed this way. If the composition is stylistically influenced by opera there is hardly any need to underline that so demonstratively as happens here. As a result the dramatic character of this work is exaggerated rather than respected.

This account is even more debatable from a historical point of view. One of the most questionable aspects is the use of vibrato, by both soloists as well as the instrumental ensemble. As many treatises of the period state vibrato was used as an ornamentation. But in this recording its use goes far beyond that. There is hardly a phrase or even a note without it, in particular from the singers. Fortunately they are able to control it in the duets in such a way, that the blending of the voices is better than one would expect, although certainly less than one would wish and the music needs. Especially in the solo parts I find the extensive use of vibrato annoying and ugly. I am also not convinced that the effects in the performance of the instrumental parts are always justified by the text's affetti.

The same can be said of the performance of the two remaining pieces, two settings of the Salve Regina. According to the booklet the c minor setting was later transposed to f minor, so that it could by sung by an alto. It is not specified when this transposition was made and by whom. There are similarities but also differences between the two settings. The setting in a minor is more contrasting and extraverted, whereas the setting in c minor (f minor) is more introverted and inward-looking. The soprano setting contains a remarkable contrast in the second verse between "ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae" and "ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes".

This recording of the Stabat mater is probably the most dramatic within the realm of the historical performance practice, but definitely not the most satisfying. One could even say that the unstylistic approach of the traditional performance practice is introduced through the backdoor here. I don't think this is something to be welcomed.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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