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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
The Seven Words Uttered by the Dying Christ on the Cross
Word One: Father, forgive them [10:37]
Word Two: Today you will be with me in paradise [10:22]
Word Three: Mother, behold your son [12:43]
Word Four: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [11:37]
Word Five: I thirst [9:32]
Word Six: It is finished [11:44]
Word Seven: Into your hands I commit my spirit [13:34]
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano); Christophe Dumaux (counter-tenor); Julien Behr (tenor); Konstantin Wolff (bass)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. August 2012, Teldex Studio, Berlin (World Premiere Recording)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902155 [80:30]

The manuscript of the Seven Last Words - as I’ll call it for convenience - has lain for centuries in several monastic establishments around Europe. Its attribution was uncertain and so it has lain outside the recognised Pergolesi canon until now. Musicologist Reinhard Fehling has now put its attribution beyond reasonable doubt, and René Jacobs is certainly convinced that it is by the Italian maestro. However, he sensibly prefaces his booklet note by reminding us that “its value does not depend on whether Pergolesi actually wrote it”. Amen to that. Regardless of the composer, Jacobs has given us the world premiere recording of a beautiful cycle of devotional cantatas that has the power to move, whether or not written by Pergolesi.
The cycle consists of seven Latin cantatas, one for each “word”, consisting of a pair or arias: one for Christ, nearly always a bass, and the other for the soul, a high voice. Consequently, all the cantatas are dialogues rather than duets: the duets between the soul and Christ would have to wait until heaven - or until Bach. It’s uncertain, but it’s likely that the work was intended as an extra-liturgical devotion on Good Friday, between the hours of noon and three o’clock. It could turn into rather a lot to take in at one sitting, but Pergolesi colours his textures with remarkably subtle use of his instruments, including several wonderful solo obbligatos. Listen, for example, to the harp in the second cantata, the horn in the third and seventh, the cello in the sixth or, perhaps most effectively of all, the viola in the beautiful fourth cantata.
René Jacobs clearly believes in this work completely. He and his musicians give it a performance of such heartfelt intensity that you sense their affection and respect for it from the outset. I haven’t always praised Jacobs in the past, and many of his orchestral recordings I have found maddening due to his sometimes abrasive manner with the music. Here, however, the overwhelming feeling is of affection and care as he takes upon himself the responsibility for unveiling this work to the modern world for the very first time. He is helped by HM’s atmospheric recorded sound, precise without being clinical, surrounding the music with a warm air that reminds us that this is a work of devotion.
The singers are also excellent. Holding the whole work together is Konstantin Wolff as Christ, who sings with authority and nobility as well as a fair helping of beauty. In the past I’ve noticed a slight edge to his voice, but here this is all but absent and he buys into Jacobs’ devotional outlook very convincingly. Julien Behr deputises as Christ for the second cantata and does so very well, but he is even more affecting in the arias of fifth and seventh cantatas. Sophie Karthäuser at first seems a little histrionic in the soprano role, but once my ear tuned in to her style I found her very beautiful. Perhaps the most striking voice is that of Christophe Dumaux, a uniquely colourful counter-tenor with a voice that manages to remain alluring and edgy at the same time.
All told, then, this is well worth exploring. Even if it wasn’t actually by Pergolesi, its attachment to his name deserves to make it much better known, and should expand our repertoire of Passiontide music into new directions. Invest with confidence.
Simon Thompson