Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
Stabat Mater [37:27]
Laudate pueri Dominum, Psalm 112 [18:40]
Valer Barna-Sabadus/Terry Wey (counter-tenors)
Ensemble Barock Vokal, Mainz
Neumayer Consort/Michael Hofstetter
rec. March 2011, Roter Saal, Hochschule für Musik der Universität Mainz
Whether or not you think you will like this performance - note the word think - depends a good deal on your previous experiences with counter-tenor voices. More often than not performed with a pair of females or perhaps one soprano and a high male voice such as that with Helmut Muller-Brühl on the Naxos label (see review), Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is his best known work. It is also beloved in relatively large-scale performances such as that of Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon 415 103 2. This Oehms Classics recording is an entirely different proposition to that particular example but is in line with recent thinking on the ideal baroque sound.
Michael Hofstetter’s intimate scale of sound and authentic approach is superficially comparable with a highly regarded recording with Rinaldo Alessandrini on the Naïve label, OP 30441 (see review). The Mainz acoustic is rather more generous with the present recording, and the overall musical picture has a touch more sparkle and life than that from Naïve though a touch less richness in the lower registers of the orchestra. If, unfamiliar with counter-tenor voices, you were to hear this recording ‘blind’ I suspect you might feel there was something different to what you were used to. That said, you certainly wouldn’t run screaming for the hills on a first impression. Both soloists have a remarkably pure sound and blend very well. Vibrato is used expressively but not hysterically, and the stratospheric heights demanded by the music are spine-tinglingly good. I wasn’t sure if I would like this beforehand, but I was sold almost immediately. There is a quality in the high male voice which seems to suit those trills in the Cujus animam perfectly. While we are not always sure who is taking which solo full credit goes to both soloists.
Hofstetter takes reasonably swift tempi, making for a good deal of drama and excitement in movements such as the Quae moerbat, which makes Muller-Brühl seem rather too genteel in comparison. This is a performance which avoids sogginess at all costs, but also creates a wonderful atmosphere and gives every moment of beauty its due in terms of weight and expression. The accompaniment is sparing and light without being hair-shirt, though fans of a more sumptuous sound may find themselves wishing for a little more depth in the string colours. My personal feeling is that the proportions, set against the sometimes choirboy purity of the voices, is near ideal.
The Laudate pueri Dominum is entirely another experience, with extra winds kicking up the dust and a fine choir adding to a much greater physical mass of sound. This more ‘in your face’ music is good fun, with bouncy ostinati and extra plucked strings adding to the rhythmic drive. There could hardly be a greater contrast with the solemn Stabat Mater, so any depressions you may have been nursing from the first half of the programme are blown away entirely by the end of the second. There is a gorgeous central Quis sicut Dominus with a superbly nuanced choral sound, and the penultimate Gloria Patri is another stunning performance. The memory left is one of remarkable virtuosity, musical agility and skill which you will want to enjoy again and again. This release is a highly rewarding pairing of disparate repertoire with unusual solo timbres, and I think it’s great.
Dominy Clements
Unusual but highly rewarding.