PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater; Laudate pueri Dominum; Confitebor tibi Domini – Julia Lezhneva, sop. / Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor /Coro della Radiotelevision svizzera /Lugano I Barocchisti /Diego Fasolis – Erato 50999 319147 2 7, 71:00 (11/5/13) [Distr. by Warner Bros.] *****:
Before turning to this recording of Pergolesi’s celebrated Stabat Mater, I’d been listening to the new series of Decca recordings of music by Augustino Steffani featuring (besides mezzo Cecilia Bartoli) Diego Fasolis and his musicians. Among those recordings was one of the Steffani Stabat Mater, enthusiastically reviewed by Steven Ritter. I share his enthusiasm but came away from the Steffani realizing just how new and different Pergolesi’s setting must have sounded in his day. For many eighteenth-century listeners, it became the Stabat Mater, the French becoming special admirers, as Simon Heighes points out. Rousseau, for example, praised the opening as “the most perfect and touching duet to come from the pen of any composer.” What was so very different about the piece?
Pergolesi was working in a long tradition; the Latin poem behind the music appeared in the thirteenth century, and celebrated composers from Josquin to Vivaldi had given it musical treatment. In fact, Pergolesi was following literally in the musical footsteps of a composer of an earlier generation, Alessandro Scarlatti, who, like Pergolesi, had been commissioned to write a setting of the poem as a part of the Lenten ceremonies held by the Knights of the Seven Sorrows in Naples. When Pergolesi got his commission in 1734, he was constrained to work with the same modest forces that Scarlatti had employed: soprano, alto, strings, and continuo. The difference between Pergolesi’s treatment and those of Steffani or Scarlatti—or even Vivaldi—is that Pergolesi brought both his more modern musical language and his operatic sensibilities to the project. As an opera composer, he had at his disposal a range of theatrical conventions for expressing emotions. And he had perfected a style suited to conveying those emotions. As Simon Heighes writes, “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 “transparency of texture” allows Pergolesi to underscore the emotions in play through the use of highly chromatic harmonies and syncopated rhythms, apt for expressing the anguish of the grieving mother of Christ. The weeping and sighing mentioned in the first two sections of the poem are mirrored by the chromatic weeping figures in the strings, as well as in the harmonic clashes between the soprano voice and the strings. Initially, I thought that Julia Lezhneva’s soprano was too light and neutral in tone to convey this anguish; I was reminded of the beautifully pure but somewhat “white” soprano of Emma Kirkby. But as I listened further, I came to feel this purity of tone was a good fit for the textural purity in Pergolesi’s writing. Certainly, the effortless way in which Lezhneva handles Pergolesi’s florid coloratura is admirable—just listen to those liquid trills. And her voice meshes beautifully with Philippe Jaroussky’s rich ringing alto. With Diego Fasolis at the helm, the instrumental accompaniment is as near perfection as it can be. This is in every way a distinguished version of the famous piece.
By way of contrast, Fasolis offers two of Pergolesi’s psalm settings. Laudate pueri Dominum (Psalm 113), brightened by the inclusion of trumpets and oboes, is especially attractive. Again, the solo voices soar and intertwine with enchanting beauty.
I first encountered Diego Fasolis through his recording of the Dixit Dominus and Dettingen Te Deum by Handel (Arts Music) and realized I was hearing an old music specialist who brought something very special to his interpretations. My admiration for him and his group I Barocchisti (a.k.a. Ensemble Vanitas) has only grown since then. With lovely singing from all involved, this beautifully recorded program gets my highest recommendation.
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