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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710–1736)
Stabat Mater (1736) [40.51]
Salve Regina (1736) [16.33]
Jörg Waschinski (soprano)
Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Muller-Bruhl
rec. November 2003, Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Cologne.
NAXOS 8.557447 [57.05]

Anyone wanting a copy of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater has a bewildering variety of recordings to choose from; ranging from well-upholstered performances from star singers such as June Anderson and Cecilia Bartoli to early music specialists.
The work was written during Pergolesi’s last year, whilst he was in retreat in the Capuchin monastery at Pozzuoli near Naples where he was trying to regain his health. Three years earlier he had produced one of his most famous works, the opera La Serva Padrona but had been unable to repeat the success with his next operas.
The commission from the Neapolitan Confraternita dei Cavalier di San Luigi di Palazzo was a high profile one; they wanted to replace the rather old-fashioned Stabat Mater by Alessandro Scarlatti which they used on Good Friday. This work, for soprano, alto, strings and organ, and the Salve Regina for soprano, strings and continuo, were the last two works written by Pergolesi.
As to who sang them; well that is an interesting question. Women remained silent in church at that period so churches who undertook elaborate musical performances needed to use boys, falsettists and castrati. The fact that Pergolesi wrote the Stabat Mater incorporating the latest operatic styles would seem to suggest that he was anticipating performance by castrati.
Generally, the soprano part is taken by a female soprano but here it is sung by a counter-tenor Jörg Waschinski who specialises in singing high falsetto singing. High falsettists have been known and used at various times in the past. The Spanish Royal Court used high falsettists on the soprano line in preference to castrati and some sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir. But it is not a voice type which is common in soloists.
The opening of the Stabat Mater bodes well as Michael Chance and Jörg Waschinski blend beautifully and produce an evocative, hushed atmosphere. Unfortunately these good intentions are dispelled when Waschinski sings his first solo phrase. Heard alone, Waschinski’s voice sounds a little thin and rather hard pressed. It is truly remarkable that he can sustain a vocal line at such a high pitch and it is a credit to his technique that he does so. But when his voice approaches the top of the stave, the colour bleaches out of it and it sounds flat - in colour terms; his pitching is generally excellent - and pressed out.
Pergolesi’s music is not virtuoso music whereby we might appreciate the sheer skill of a singer’s high notes. In such music, Waschinski’s voice might come into its own. Instead, in the Stabat Mater the singer is meant to sustain a sense of line, to be expressive and emotive. Pushed to the limits of its range, Waschinski’s voice simply lacks the leeway to be able to be expressive and emotive. It takes all his power to sing the notes. This is even more noticeable in the Salve Regina where Waschinski sings alone. For me, the finest moments on this disc were the duets between Waschinski and Michael Chance.
Michael Chance contributes some fine solo singing, but can also sound a little pressed at the top of his range. I did have the guilty thought that performing the piece at a slightly lower pitch might have benefited the performance enormously.
Helmut Muller-Bruhl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra provide fine support. I wish I could recommend this disc more. It is an interesting concept, but it is frankly not a disc that I could listen to regularly.
Robert Hugill

see also review by Evan Dickerson


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