PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater; BACH: Cantatas 54 & 170 – La Nuova Musica/ David Bates, Lucy Crowe (sop.), Tim Mead (ten.) – Harmonia Mundi

A vivid and breathtaking rendition of Pergolesi’s masterpiece strangely saddled between Bach canatas.

PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater; BACH: Cantatas 54 & 170 – La Nuova Musica dir. David Bates with Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead – Harmonia Mundi 907589 64:16 (5/5/17) ****:

(Lucy Crowe: soprano/ Tim Mead: countertenor)

Jean Jacques Rousseau, muddle-headed in so many of his opinions, had surprisingly good sense when it came to music, which was after all his true profession. He voiced an assessment of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater that has held up well over the centuries, calling it “the most touching expression of sorrow to come from the pen of any composer.” This was, however, already a conventional opinion by this time. Charles Burney writing a bit later in the century, extolled the Italian thus:

“His clearness, simplicity, truth and sweetness of expression justly entitles him to supremacy over all his predecessors and contemporary rivals, and to a niche in the temple of Fame, among the great improvers of the art..” (Burney: A General History of Music)

It is all the more remarkable that Pergolesi attained this eminence in the 18th century, having expired at the tender age of 26. Whereas Schubert reached the the age of 32 and left nearly a thousand opus numbers, Pergolesi is known for an opera and the ultimate Stabat Mater, famously, a last utterance. The former, La Serva Patrona, became famous in the Parisian opera controversy known as the querelle des bouffons in the late 18th century, while the latter was, incredibly it might seem, the most copied piece of music in the entire century.

What might not be known to our readers is that even the great Bach engaged with the meteoric Pergolesi. A new performance of the Stabat Mater, led by David Bates with his excellent La Nuova Musica cohorts, includes two cantatas by Bach which connect in a roundabout way to an earlier reworking of the Stabat Mater in a motet. According to the lengthy and informative essay included in this project, the thread is the text of one Georg Lehm, a paraphrase of protestant liturgy far removed from the Catholic text.

Highly complex features of the score and liturgical text are taken up in the notes. Apparently, both cantatas (BWV 54 & 170) are unusual, most notably for the inclusion of the organ in place of the basso continuo. Nor is there a concertante sinfonia introduction; there are merely arias for alto and recitativos. The text strikes the gloomiest of notes in a distinctly Lutheran vein of world renunciation: “The world, that house of sin, resounds but with infernal songs and seeks with hatred and envy to emulate Satan’s image, etc.” One might inquire what is all this doing next to Pergolesi, who, even on the subject of a mother’s supreme grief, extols the beauty of the world in a sunswept and graceful affirmation of the goodness of the world.

It is a strange pairing. The first cantata, at about eleven minutes, is long enough to create a great impatience for the Pergolesi piece. When it arrives, it is as if windows have been thrown open; the fragrance of daphne and hyacinth waft in. We prepare for the entry of the most iconic duet in classical music an experience that connects us to countless listeners going back to Rousseau, who did not have the advantage of exquisite sound production that we take for granted. Lucy Crowe and countertenor Tim Mead are charged with the challenge of conveying the special intimacy and plangency of Pergolesi’s ever-magical theme. Nine words of latin contain, beyond the spiritual meanings, a new harmonic sensibility and soaring lyrical genius. There are other brilliant moments in the piece which may be considered as lofty rooms, but the first Duo is the gilded portal. Once we enter, our sight must be readjusted. The playing of the strings and continuo is exquisite, 16 musicians poised and focused to deliver the arrival of the clament voices. And what a glorious entry it is! Perfectly blended and deeply moving, it is the rarest of immersive experiences in the pure emotion of music. Only afterwards can one ask how it compares to other supreme achievements of this work, say the 1988 Hyperion recording featuring the duo of Michael Chance and Gillian Fisher (or the more recent recordings with eminent countertenors, Andreas Scholl or Daniel Taylor) The comparison is apt, for in both recordings, vibrato is minimally employed, paring the natural vocal timbre down to its essence. Seven more duets will follow, but nothing will ascend to the heights of the first.

There is a real Handelian buoyancy to the alto solo on Quae meorebat et dolebat which hardly fits the text “Oh, that silent ceaseless mourning,etc “ But the subsequent duet captures again the exquisite transformation of grief into beauty, which this music is all about. The director, David Bates has a surprise on the Vidit suum dulce natum; The ensemble slows and dies down to a prolonged whispering pianissimo on the words emisit spiritum, which, in the English text, is imperfectly translated as “expiring cry.” There are highwire challenges in the duo fac, ut ardeat cor meum and with it the risk of the singing becoming pure athleticism. However, the singers stay in rapt concentration and communication throughout. The joyous Inflammatus et accensus celebrates deliriously the other side of suffering, while the concluding Quando corpus morietur is beauty beyond any category of art that I have ever encountered. Overall, this performance stands out in every regard and can be considered as a yet another compelling statement regarding the lofty place of this piece of music.

Many folks will not stay around for the Cantata for alto BWV 170. Indeed, it should be taken in at a remove from the Stabat Mater . It begins with a movingly lyrical sinfonia with an accompanying oboe adds a consoling voice to Tim Mead’s sweet countertenor. The text might be an obstacle after the simplicity of the preceding catholic  hymn, which oddly in its medieval gruesomeness translates better to the contemporary and universal experience with its the grieving mother, the scene of the crime the senseless violence which devours the the human and leaves a ruin in its wake. It is a plausible view of the world. But with the arrival of the recitativo we get a theological apparatus which is unserviceable and a heavy slog indeed.

A most angular weirdness in the organ accompaniment , doubtless freighted with symbolic weight, is a puzzlement as well.  Tim Mead sounds  determined to make it through and does so dutifully but by the end we are surely perplexed as to why this would be placed with the Pergolesi piece. Perhaps a twentieth century work such as the the Szymanowski Stabat Mater would seem like a natural choice.

Overall, Harmonia Mundi can be commended for a most interesting project and a superb rendering of the masterpiece of Pergolesi. The meticulous notes and handsome packaging have become routine for this outstanding label.

—Fritz Balwit

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