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Baroque Duets
Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI
(1710 – 1736)

Stabat Mater (1736) [39.58]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678 – 1741)

Laudamus Te from Gloria in D, RV589 [2.24]; Virgam virtutis tuae from Dixit Dominus in D, RV594 [2.11]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685– 1759)

Duetto XV: Quel fior che all’alba ride, HWV192 (1741) [4.23]; Duetto XVI: No, di voi non vo’fidami, HWV 189 (1741) [6.04]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643) Chiome d’oro; Pur ti miro from L’Incoronazione di Poppea [7.40]
Sara Macliver (soprano)
Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo)
Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker
Recorded 4-8 October 2004, 9 December 2004, 25 March 2005, Eugene Goossens Hall at Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS ABC 476 7737 [63.17]

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Anyone wanting a copy of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater has a bewildering variety of recordings to choose from. These range from well-upholstered performances from star singers such as June Anderson and Cecilia Bartoli to early music specialists.

Australians Sara Macliver and Sally-Anne Russell have now recorded the work. This new disc makes an attractive follow up to the singers’ disc of Bach duets, also with Antony Walker [review].

Macliver and Russell both have attractive, even, well-produced voices that blend well. Macliver has a bright, flexible soprano that is perhaps rather richer than is common with sopranos recording with period instrument orchestras; no bad thing you might say. Russell has a rich, even contralto and has no problems with the tessitura of a part which is commonly taken by counter-tenors.

An added advantage to the pairing is that Macliver and Russell have voices which blend beautifully. But it is not just their voices that blend; the two seem to move as one in the duet passages. The results make for gorgeous listening. Pergolesi’s suspensions in the opening movement have never sounded spine-tinglingly lovelier.

When I reviewed the pair’s Bach disc, a drawback to their approach was a certain reticence with the words; this continues with the Pergolesi. Whilst Pergolesi’s decoratively operatic movements may not need the attention to textual detail that Bach’s arias do, the Stabat Mater is a seriously heavy text and does need projection, something that Macliver and Russell do not give. As their voices are so richly beautiful, we seem to be being encouraged to sit back and enjoy the music without worrying too much about the exact meaning. This is not entirely true and some movements are suitably dramatic, but in a very generalised way without an attention to verbal detail.

They are supported by the Orchestra of the Antipodes, though perhaps ‘orchestra’ is a misnomer as for the Pergolesi, only eight players are used with strings playing one to a part. The playing has an uncompromising directness which makes the most of Pergolesi’s harmonic and chromatic score, but contrasts oddly with the rather rich voices. After all, Pergolesi lived in Naples and wrote for rich, Italian operatic voices. Having cast the Stabat Mater with two singers possessed of lovely, vibrant young voices, it seems a shame that the orchestral accompaniment could not have been made more sympathetic, either by increasing the number of strings or having the string players modify their style by using just a little vibrato to warm the rather bare tone.

The Stabat Mater is accompanied by pairs of duets from other baroque masters. The well known Laudamus te from Vivaldi’s Gloria is paired with the Virgam virtutis tuae from the Dixit Dominus. I am always a bit dubious about pulling stray movements from such sacred works, but the two singers are undeniably attractive in both works. It was a pity that something a little more unusual could not have been found though. For the movement from the Dixit Dominus the size of the instrumental ensemble was increased, with a resulting improvement in the warmth of the string tone.

The two Handel duets are charming revelations. Handel wrote quite a number of Italian duets, quite often as recreation; they were not published in his lifetime and were probably used at aristocratic soirees when he put his Italian singers through their paces for the benefit of his patrons. These duets are lovely pieces and I wish that we could hear more of them. Both the pieces here are in three movement format, fast-slow-fast; the novelty is that the fast movements were all quarried by Handel for choruses from Messiah so that whilst we are listening to Italian amorous duets, we hear his sacred oratorio in the background. Both singers are ideal in this repertoire, accompanied just by harpsichord; I would have liked more.

The disc concludes with a pair of Monteverdi pieces. The madrigal, Chiome d’oro from the Seventh Book of Madrigals, is not a complete success because you need to perform this repertoire with more than beauty of tone; greater attention to the words would have helped enormously. But the final item is all about gorgeous tone, the stunning closing duet from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Almost certainly not by Monteverdi but by one of his pupils, it nonetheless makes a lovely conclusion to a charming disc.

Robert Hugill

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