30 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – STABAT MATER (J. Schenkel, A. Potter, Zürcher Sängerknaben; Tudor 7166)

CD REVIEW: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - STABAT MATER (Tudor 7166)

GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736): Stabat mater and GIOVANNI LORENZO GREGORI (1663 – 1745?): Concerti grossi, Op. 2 Nos. 9 & 10—Jonah Schenkel (boy soprano), Alex Potter (countertenor); Zürcher Sängerknaben; Barockorchester Capriccio; Alphons von Aarburg, conductor [Recorded in Kirche Neumünster, Zürich, Switzerland, 24 – 27 January 2013; Tudor 7166; 1CD, 43:56; Available from Tudor, Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The Stabat mater of the short-lived but prolific Giovanni Battista Pergolesi remains one of the most familiar but frustratingly enigmatic liturgical compositions of the Eighteenth Century. Perhaps more than almost any of his contemporaries, Pergolesi has been the subject of waves of accepted and discredited scholarship: now, in 2014, little more is known with any degree of certainty of the circumstances of the musical genesis of the Stabat mater than was known a century ago. It is likely that the Stabat mater was composed in the friary at Pozzuoli in the Campania where Pergolesi resided in the last months of his life, as disease—likely consumption—eroded his health. Commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo, the progressive gallant style employed in the Stabat mater, which is among the relatively few scores that can be proved to be wholly Pergolesi’s work, captivated listeners and composers throughout the Eighteenth Century, inspiring respectful retoolings by artists as diverse as Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Paisiello. Perhaps because of the modest performing forces the work requires and the deceptively uncomplicated appeal of its melodies, the Stabat mater is one of the few larger-scaled vocal works of the Eighteenth Century to have clung to a place in the international repertory throughout subsequent generations. Even a cursory acquaintance with the music cannot fail to disclose the justification of that place.

Since the infancy of recorded sound, Pergolesi’s Stabat mater has been a frequent guest in recording studios, the score having amassed an extensive discography of recordings that range in performing ethos from the barest-boned historically-informed Early Music approach to the largesse of Victorian and Edwardian practices. Tudor’s new recording places the Stabat mater in the context of an Italian tradition familiar to those who know Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus: expanding Pergolesi’s vocal distribution to include chorus, this recording offers a full vista of the convention glimpsed in the cinematic depiction of the funeral for Antonio Salieri’s father. This performance also maintains tremendous fidelity to details of period-appropriate practice, however. If this suggests something of a hybrid concept of the score, it is one that ultimately proves more coherent, dramatically fulfilling, and musically distinguished than almost any other on records. This is authenticity at its best: no minute detail of execution is permitted undue prominence, and the cumulative impact of the work as a whole is enhanced rather than undermined by the brilliant sparkle of the musical facets of this performance.

The Italianate sunlight in which this jewel of a performance coruscates is provided by the playing of Barockorchester Capriccio and especially the continuo of organist Yves Bilger and theorbist Mirko Arnone. Along with exemplary performances of two Concerti grossi by the little-remembered Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori, whose compositions for his native Lucca included liturgical music that was greatly admired in the early Eighteenth Century. Though the playing of every member of Barockorchester Capriccio radiates virtuosity and vitality, the organ and theorbo continuo is delivered with unobtrusive genius, every phrase of Mr. Bilger’s and Mr. Arnone’s playing not only perfectly complementing the vocalists but also highlighting nuances of the text with uncommon eloquence. This collaboration reaches its zenith in ‘Sancta mater, istud agas,’ in which Mr. Bilger’s organ lines are rendered with incomparable beauty. Under the direction of Alphons von Aarburg, the performance pulses with energy and sincerity.

The instrumental glories of the performance are matched by the singing of the youngsters of the Zürcher Sängerknaben, whose numbers are similar to those that historical records suggest were typical of choirs in Italian parish churches during Pergolesi’s lifetime. From their first entrance in the opening ‘Stabat mater dolorosa,’ the boys of the Zürcher Sängerknaben sing with polish and precision foreign to all but the very best ensembles of child singers. The urgency of their singing in ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’ exudes surprising maturity, and their poise in the final bars of ‘Quis est homo, qui non fleret’ is superb. The forthrightness and depth of expression in the boys’ performance of ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ is arresting: there is in the simplicity of their delivery of the text a compelling—and very moving—sense of a true desire to share the Holy Mother’s transfiguring sorrow. The contrapuntal elements of the final ‘Amen’ pose no challenges that the choristers are not fully capable of meeting, and their singing brings the performance to a close with tremendous grace. Particularly before the advent of the focus on historically-informed performance practices, there were occasional performances of Stabat mater featuring choirs, but the boys of the Zürcher Sängerknaben are among the few choristers on records whose singing is a genuine advantage to the performance at hand.

Boy soprano Jonah Schenkel quite simply possesses the finest treble voice recorded in Pergolesi’s Stabat mater to date, and he allies his natural vocal abilities with technical acumen that is exceptionally rare for such a young singer. Trills are not a common weapon in a boy soprano’s arsenal, but Mr. Schenkel consistently makes credible efforts, even on the extraordinarily demanding trills on top G in ‘Cujus animam gementem.’ The technical hurdles of ‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’ are cleared with the alacrity of an Olympian, and Mr. Schenkel’s musical precision is admirable throughout the performance. In the ascending lines of ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ and ‘Quando corpus morietur,’ Mr. Schenkel sings with complete assurance, and the whole of his performance is marked by beautiful, focused, and absolutely secure tone. When his voice combines with that of countertenor Alex Potter, the magic of this performance is at its most potent. The evenness of Mr. Potter’s tone in ‘Quae moerebat et dolebat’ is refreshing, and he, too, takes the many trills in his music in stride. In ‘Eja mater fons amoris,’ too, the integration of Mr. Potter’s vocal registers is wonderful, not only as a musical achievement but equally as a dramatic device enabling telling use of text. Mr. Potter’s technique is most tested in ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem,’ in which he delivers a splendidly musical and effective cadenza, and he proves a complete master of the music. The power of Mr. Potter’s tone in the lower reaches of his part, where the voices of many countertenors are weakest, is deployed unforgettably in passages in which he sings in duet with Mr. Schenkel, especially in ‘Inflammatus et accensus.’ Both singers employ straight tone to great effect in the crucial chromatic passages of Pergolesi’s music, but they do not indulge in artificial whitening of their timbres. It is the naturalness of the singing of both soloists that is the greatest achievement of this performance: free from posturing and the strutting of egos, Mr. Schenkel’s and Mr. Potter’s singing is exceptionally enjoyable in its consummate but unforced stylishness.

Some of the greatest pleasures to be had from music arise from hearing familiar works performed in unexpected ways, and many of the most perceptive innovations of recent years have been derived from restoring works of the Eighteenth Century to musical milieux that replicate the contexts of their first performances. This recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater resurrects a tradition with which the composer was likely acquainted, but its lasting value is in the merit of the achievement. The comprehension of period-appropriate performance practices displayed in this recording is appreciable, but it is the manifest understanding that beauty is—or should be—the foremost goal of any performance that makes this a Stabat mater that mesmerizes.