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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
Stabat Mater (1736) [38:17]
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Stabat Mater (c.1712) [42:15]
Gemma Bertagnoli (soprano); Sara Mingardo (alto)
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
rec. January 1998, Centro Giovanni XXIII, Frascati, Italy
NAĎVE OP30441 [79:39]


Experience Classicsonline

In Volume Four of his General History of Music (1776-89) Charles Burney provides a view of Pergolesi and his music some fifty years after his death. He describes Pergolesi as “the child of taste and elegance, and nurstling of the Graces”. His development as a composer is seen in terms of an abandonment of what was merely academically correct: “at the age of fourteen, he began to perceive that taste and melody were sacrificed to the pedantry of learned counterpoint, and after vanquishing the necessary difficulties in the study of harmony, fugue, and scientific texture of the parts, he intreated his friends to take him home [i.e. away from the Conservatory in Naples], that he might indulge his own fancies, and write such Music as was most agreeable to his natural perceptions and feelings. The instant he quitted the conservatorio, he totally changed his style, and adopted that of Vinci, of whom he received lessons in vocal composition, and of Hasse … With equal simplicity and clearness, he seems to have surpassed them both, in graceful and interesting melody”.

Burney acknowledges that Pergolesi’s sacred music was controversial: “The church Music of Pergolesi has been censured by his countryman, Padre Martini, as well as by some English musical critics, for too much levity of movement, and a dramatic cast, even in some of his slow airs; while, on the contrary, Eximeno days, that ‘he never heard, and perhaps never shall hear, sacred Music accompanied with instruments, so learned and so divine, as the Stabat Mater’ … The works of this master form an aera in modern Music”.

The terms of the debate about compositions such as :Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater remain much the same; more than a few modern listeners find it too theatrical, too operatic. Such listeners are unlikely to be well disposed to this reissued recording under the direction of Rinaldo Alessandrini. Alessandrini is not a conductor ever likely to underplay the dramatic, to understate dynamic contrasts or unexpected harmonic touches. Rather, we get some decidedly quick and some almost indulgently slow tempos; the dynamic contrasts are, if anything heightened, and there are some starling and unexpected accents. This is a performance full of passion and, yes, full of theatricality. In its moments of calmness, in its “slow airs”, this is a performance which has a remarkably poignant beauty. Sara Mingardo’s singing is a constant joy and Gemma Bertagnoli’s soprano complements Mingardo’s alto delightfully, even if there is the slightest sense of unease on the very highest notes. But it is Alessandrini’s vision of the work which makes this one of the best of available versions of a much recorded work. To return to Burney once more, this is a recording which enables us to have a full sense of those qualities of “clearness, simplicity, truth, and sweetness of expression” which the great historian thought of as characteristic of the composer. The small string forces used by Alessandrini ensure both clarity of texture and an absence of the syrupy sweetness that one encounters in some versions of the work. I wouldn’t want to have only one version of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – but this one version I wouldn’t want to be without.

A final quotation from Burney: “It is Mr. Walpole’s opinion that Mr. Gray first brought the compositions of Pergolesi into England”. Horace Walpole is Burney’s source here and we cannot be sure that Gray was really such a pioneer. But there is a nice symbolism in the story. In English poetry Thomas Gray is one of the earliest representatives of a shift in style and sensibility – from the neo-classicism of the Augustans to the first phases of pre-Romanticism. Though the analogy is not an exact one, a not dissimilar position in the history of Italian music might perhaps be allotted to Pergolesi. His work represents a shift in sensibility, in musical taste – and that shift is, in microcosm, represented on this disc, where Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Mater is coupled with the earlier one by Alessandro Scarlatti.

There seems to be no certainty as to the exact date of Scarlatti’s setting. But it probably dates to the period he spent in Naples between 1708 and 1717. It was commissioned by a Neapolitan lay confraternity called the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori and was regularly performed at the church of San Luigi di Palazzo. Within some twenty years of Scarlatti’s work, the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori saw fit to replace it by Pergolesi’s setting, for that too was (in all probability) commissioned by same confraternity. The implication is not necessarily that Scarlatti’s setting was judged to be bad or incompetent, merely that the shift of sensibility of which Pergolesi is so apt a symbol made it seem rather old-fashioned.

In fact, judged from our own position in time, Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater is actually rather fine – but certainly less obviously ‘exciting’ than  the more famous setting which ‘succeeded’ it. It is a good deal less theatrical, rather more committed to complex polyphony, more learned in its respect for the musical tradition, rather more conventionally ‘reverential’. And often very beautiful! It is full of beautiful passages, as in the interplay of alto voice and instrumental accompaniment in ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’ or the melodic line for soprano in ‘Pia Mater’.

The juxtaposition of these two Neapolitan settings of the Stabat Mater makes for a fascinating, instructive and, above all, beautiful and moving disc.

Glyn Pursglove


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