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Spirit, Strength and Sorrow - Settings of Stabat Mater
Stabat Mater [4:51]
Alissa FIRSOVA (b. 1986)
Stabat Mater [8:52]
Tõnu KÕRVITS (b. 1969)
Stabat Mater [11:17]
Claudio CASCIOLINI (1697-1760)
Stabat Mater [10:08]
Matthew MARTIN (b. 1976)
Stabat Mater [10:21]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Stabat Mater [23:24]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
rec. June 2014, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Latin text and English translation included
CORO COR16127 [68:45]

For the last decade Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with John Studzinski and the Genesis Foundation. This has resulted in a number of commissions which have enabled contemporary composers to write new settings of religious works. This disc presents the fruits of the third collaboration with new settings of the medieval text Stabat Mater- though none of the three new works sets all 20 stanzas of the poem.

Harry Christophers tells us that James MacMillan, another long-time collaborator with The Sixteen helped him and John Studzinski to select the three composers here represented. Fittingly, MacMillan has also been commissioned by the Genesis Foundation to compose a Stabat Mater and his new work, an hour-long setting for choir and string orchestra, will receive its first performance from Christophers and The Sixteen on 16 October 2016 during a weekend at London’s Barbican focussing on MacMillan’s work. For further information about the MacMillan premiere click here. Earlier on the same day Ex Cathedra will give the London premiere of another MacMillan choral work, Seven Angels, the first performance of which I reviewed last year. Details here.
The three new works presented here were recorded shortly after they had all been premiered at a concert at LSO St Luke’s in June 2014.

The medieval poem, Stabat Mater Dolorosa has been attributed to a 13th-century Franciscan, Jacopone da Todi. As Michael White explains in his illuminating booklet notes, da Todi is a nickname; the true identity of the poet is probably lost for ever in the mists of time. The poem consists of twenty three-line stanzas describing the anguish of Mary at the foot of the Cross. It’s been set to music by many composers, including Pergolesi, Rossini, Verdi, Poulenc and Szymanowski. However, as White points out the poem is technically difficult to set and this, together with its length may, he suggests, account for the gradual reduction of composers willing to tackle it. It may be significant that none of the composers represented here set Stabat Mater in its entirety; Tõnu Kõrvits selects 12 stanzas while his colleagues both confine themselves to seven.

Harry Christophers has chosen to frame these brand new settings with three versions from the past, all of which set the complete poem. The disc opens with plainchant. Here Christophers alternates the verses between male and female voices. I also like the way he keeps the music moving forward. The setting by the Italian composer, Claudio Casciolini was previously unknown to me – as, indeed, was the composer himself. The setting follows the falsobordone practice whereby alternating verses – in this case the even-numbered ones – are sung to plainchant – while original music is used for the odd-numbered verses. Casciolini’s own verses are set either to music in five parts, which we hear first, or to completely different four-part music. Even though he sets the whole poem Casciolini’s composition is succinct; it’s also effective.

Domenico Scarlatti’s setting, which probably dates from around 1715, is on an altogether grander scale. The chorus is divided into as many as ten parts and there is instrumental support; here from a theorbo, harp and organ. For this larger-scale piece the size of the choir is expanded to twenty (8/4/4/4). I’ve heard this piece before. On that occasion it was sung by a larger amateur choir. Though the choir in question was a very good one I didn’t think the piece worked. Here, in a taut, super-proficient performance by a smaller group of professionals, it does. It’s astonishing how much variety – both musical and textural – Scarlatti packs into the score. Among other devices that he uses for variety is the employment of solo singers from within the choir, for example in the florid solo passages of the “Inflammatus”. There’s a good deal of challenging music in this score but The Sixteen surmount every difficulty with seeming ease.

Challenges of a very different kind are posed by the three new works. Alissa Firsova’s setting is perhaps the most immediately approachable of the three. Her Russian heritage can be heard in some of the harmonies and I’m very taken with Michael White’s phrase, referring to “a tender icon-like passivity in dealing with more graphic details of the text, looking beyond the horror to the grace.” Much of the music features slow moving, almost mystical harmonies yet this piece does not sound like the Orthodox-influenced vocal music that one has heard from a number of contemporary composers. I was struck in particular by the luminosity that comes into the music at “Fac ut ardeat cor meum”; here the tone of the piece changes significantly. Later there’s ardour at “Inflammatus”. In the last stanza, “Quando corpus morietur”, there seems to be gentle acceptance. I found this setting to be full of interest.

Tõnu Kõrvits uses starker harmonic language. Even though the dynamics are frequently subdued his is a tense and troubled setting. My ear was caught particularly by the music at “Quis est homo”. Here the words are articulated first by a solo tenor and then by all the male voices. But what makes the passage special is the wordless accompaniment by the female voices. Thus the music achieves an other-worldly feel. Kõrvits’ music is dark and unsettling – at times it almost seems forbidding – but it draws the listener in very strongly. After the darkness and drama of what has gone before his switch to quiet, prayerful music for the last two stanzas, beginning at “Christe, cum sit hinc exire”, is all the more effective.

Matthew Martin adopts a different approach to his colleagues in that he mixes words from the Latin poem with brand new English words, specially written by the priest and poet, Robert Willis (b. 1947). Since 2001 Willis has been Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, where Martin was organ scholar early in his career. Martin interweaves lines by Willis and from Stabat Mater into what he has entitled A Passiontide Triptych. Much of the choral writing in the first two sections is arresting and dramatic; Martin’s writing is more angular than that heard in the Firsova or Kõrvits settings. His piece is also the most ambitious in terms of structure and texture – he uses a four-voice semi-chorus (SSTB) in addition to the main choir. The final section is entitled ‘Passion, Destiny’ and here for the most part the writing is more subdued and the harmonic language becomes rather more gentle, presumably to convey a sense of acceptance. This is a very powerful piece which I would describe as more a meditation on the Stabat Mater rather than a setting of it.

This is a fine and very stimulating disc. The contrast between the new and old settings of the Stabat Mater is illuminating and thought-provoking. The trio of contemporary composers has produced intelligent and very telling responses to the medieval text. The performances of all six pieces are out of the top drawer and the recording is excellent. So too is the standard of Coro’s documentation. I now wait with some impatience to hear James MacMillan’s setting of the text when it is unveiled later this year. In the meantime one can only congratulate Harry Christophers and the Genesis Foundation for providing the stimulus for three important new pieces and for their enterprise in making them available to a wider audience through this recording.

John Quinn



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