It is very apt that Naïve has put together from past releases
(OP30406, 30444 & 30461) this three-CD set of sacred music
by Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti. 2010, now drawing to
an end, has marked Pergolesi’s 300th birthday
and Scarlatti’s 350th. Pergolesi has
come out of it slightly better than Scarlatti. My reviewing
year practically began with Pergolesi - in fact with Abbado’s
recording for Archiv of the Missa S.Emidio coupled with
the Salve Regina and other works. Abbado, much to everyone’s
surprise, had pronounced that for him “2010 would be the
Pergolesi year”. What that meant was that he would record
everything, on three discs, and perform it. He opted for a large
choir of over thirty and the Orchestra Mozart who use modern
477 8463). I commented however that “Abbado almost
treats the pieces as if they were some vast romantic work, but
coupled with that they are crisp, precise and expressive.”
In the first disc Concerto Italiano in Missa S.Emidio use a smaller choir and period instruments and generally evince a lighter touch. This sometimes results in faster tempi but more transparent textures. Having said that, the overall length of the performance compared with that from Abbado is exactly the same. In the Missa S.Emidio we have only a brief Kyrie and a vast Gloria. The commission for the composer was to write a celebratory work following the earthquake of 1731 and 1732 in Naples. There is conveyed a great sense theatre and of occasion. Added to that Pergolesi scores the work for strings, oboes, bassoons, and brass as well as a double chorus and soloists. There are many expressive sections as in the ‘Qui tollis’ and the ‘Qui sedes’, all beautifully captured here.
Coupled with this work is Scarlatti’s delightfully happy Messa per santissimo natale (for Christmas Night) written for double choir with some solo work. Even the Kyrie eleison seems pleased to be making our acquaintance. Nevertheless there are some reflective moments and Scarlatti divides up the lengthy texts of the Gloria and Creed into contrasting chunks moving between Adagio and Allegro. The Gloria ends with a fugue and the Creed with a grand chorus number for both choirs. Surprisingly the Agnus dei has no Dona nobis pacem which was apparently the fashion at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the ‘must see’ churches of Rome) and even more surprisingly, no Benedictus but that can sometimes be omitted in the modern liturgy also. The performance is lively and enjoyable with crisp violin work, virtuoso vocal passages and contrasting textures. My only problem is that no matter how many voices or instruments are involved the dynamic is unvaried and lacks interest. The notes by Luca della Libera are a model of their kind, giving clear background information and useful but not especially technical musical analysis.
The second disc consists of two settings of the 14th Century text, the Stabat Mater. It’s extraordinary to think that both were commissioned by the same body: the Cavaliere della Vergine dei Dolori in Naples - the Scarlatti in c.1715 and the Pergolesi in 1734. The former was considered to be old-fashioned according to Alessandrini’s useful booklet notes. The latter has become iconic not least because, it is said that the composer, who was dying from tuberculosis, scratched the last notes on manuscript just in time. It is a very fine work and the opening movement has been much copied and performed. The last, the ‘Quando corpus morietur’ is just as expressive. In between we have mood contrasts and many chances for the operatic soloists to show off, for example in the wonderful ‘Inflammatus et accensus’. I’m not entirely convinced by the performance. It is a dramatic work but Alessandrini, and call me a curmudgeonly old Englishman if you like, overeggs the pudding. Things just become mannered and far too slow. This happens especially in the first two movements. Listen if you can to the Naxos version with the unlikely Camerata Budapest who have a much lighter touch and are two minutes faster (!) in the first movement. Also the ornaments seem a little unnatural. I’m also not convinced by the matching of the voices. This is partially because as much as I like soprano Gemma Bertagnolli I find the contralto Sara Mingardo too plummy especially when singing forte or in a higher register. I did warm to her as the work went on but perhaps that is simply because one gets used to things.
I found the balance between the singers much more mellow and pleasing in the Scarlatti Stabat Mater aided and abetted by some excitingly articulated and very expressive instrumental work. This is a beautiful piece and this performance “knocks into a cocked-hat” the 1989 version I already had by the ensemble Gradiva (Adda184). Why was the setting superseded so soon after use. Alessandrini comments in his fascinating booklet essay that it might have been because of Scarlatti’s “predilection for extremely dense textures”. I’m not sure I agree. Although the disc is subtitled ‘The Theatre in Church’ I think that this setting was eased out because it was much less theatrical than the new sensibilities wanted. Also the composer was 55, quite an elderly statesman by the time he wrote it, and Pergolesi was barely out of the nursery. In addition Scarlatti divides his setting into eighteen short and mostly slow sections with - except for the Amen - less chance for virtuosity. Especially attractive was a moderato tempo ‘Juxta Crucem’ accompanied by syncopated pizzicato string chords and a lovely ensuing ‘Virgo virginum’ (‘Virgin of Virgins do not refuse me’). All in all I am glad to have this recording on my shelves and will turn to it again in Holy Week.
The third disc is simply entitled Salve Regina and also constitutes volume 10 in ‘L’arte di Fabia Biondi’ and Europa Galante. The two Pergolesi settings are for soprano solo, strings and organ continuo. The first Salve Regina in A minor divides the text into four movements beginning with a melting Largo then a brief Allegro for the words ‘Our life, our sweetness, our hope” this falls into a Larghetto for ‘To thee we cry”. An Andante in triple time follows and for the final beautiful ‘O clemens, o pia” section we return to the opening, achingly beautiful mood for a reflective ending. The second, slightly longer Salve Regina is, if anything, even more expressive and divides the text this time into six portions with 1, 3 and 6 being marked Largo to mark off ‘Holy Queen of Mercy’ and ‘To thee do we send up our sighs’ and finally ‘O sweet Virgin Mary Hail’. Pergolesi’s contrasting sections highlight the lighter parts of the text in faster tempi, for example ‘Turn, then most gracious advocate’. As above Barbara Schlick captures the necessary passion and also innocence as required.
These settings are surrounded by two instrumental sonatas in three movements. If you know your ‘Pulcinella’ of Stravinsky you will recognize the faster outer movements of the B flat Sonata. The G major Sonata is wonderfully poised on the edge of the classical world. Both however serve to remind us what a good melodist Pergolesi is.
There are a number of links between Pergolesi and Leonardo Leo whose Salve Regina follows. For example they both worked at some point in Naples as ‘maîtres de capelle’. Yet despite the fact that Leo’s work appears to date from a decade before Pergolesi’s it is far more baroque in language with its use of ‘style galant’ and its more virtuoso vocal line, sung here with such plasticity and elegance by Barbara Schlick. Leo’s text is what, in an earlier age, might have been thought of as troped, that is it includes a few words and sentences not normally appearing in the text: ‘And Jesus the blessed fruit of thy womb’. Leo divides his texts into five sections starting and ending with a Largo - like Pergolesi in his first setting. The Eja Mater is a melodious minuet and there is much ornamentation in the outer movements; quite suitable for the opera diva employed in Holy Week or from the conservatoire to show off her abilities.
This is a worthwhile box set and, as I have just seen it for just £16 in a leading record store, well worth investing in.