Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Set in a Fascinating Context

FranceFrance Holy Week at Versailles II: Sophie Junker (soprano); Eva Zaïcik (mezzo) with Serge Goubioud, Hugues Primard (tenors), Emmanuel Vistorky (baritone), La Poème Harmonique / Vincent Dumestre (conductor), Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 19.4.2019. (CC)

Vincent Dumestre © François Berthier
Vincent Dumestre © François Berthier

Anonymous – Chant: Stabat Mater; Chant: Stabat Mater (Monopoly MS); Chant, Stabat Mater (Ostuni MS)

Traditional – Tarantella, ‘Mo’è benuto il Giovedì Santu’

Durante – Concerto in F minor

Pergolesi –Stabat Mater

Approaching Pergolesi’s famous, ultra-beautiful Stabat Mater via a stimulating mix of the sacred and the secular resulted in an astonishingly refreshing evening, allowing us to hear the climactic piece anew. The concert programme bears close relation to La Poème Harmonique and Vincent Dumestre’s Alpha disc, ‘Stabat Mater’, but substitutes the F minor concerto for that in E minor by the Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante (1684-1755). Durante was a pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti and he numbered Pergolesi among his pupils. (Incidentally, a recent Chronos disc offers a similar programme around this idea, offering insertions into the Pergolesi and similarly celebrating the sacred/secular contrast: Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu, there led by Franck-Emmanuel Comte, ISCM 012).

The mix of sacred and secular reflects historical fact. A week before Good Friday, the public paraded through the streets in a show of piety that was, at its heart, intensely theatrical; this culminated in a performance in a holy space of the Stabat Mater. Recreating this tradition, the anonymous chant of Stabat Mater issued forth from the back of the Chapelle Royale, beautiful pure, the atmosphere shattered by the extravagance of the traditional tarantella ‘Mo’è benuto il Giovedì Santu’ in a vocal and instrumental extravaganza that eventually found all performers on the stage. The tune is an earworm: even after the Pergolesi, at the after-party, it wouldn’t leave my head. Raucous and bawdy, this was a meeting of the secular and sacred that was unforgettable, emphasised by the return of the sacred in the Stabat Mater from the Monopoly manuscript. The juxtaposition of voice types, the lines rendered perfectly (and minus vibrato, aiding the plaintive sound).

Francesco Durante’s Concerto in F minor is a remarkable work. (A disc of six Concertos for Strings by this composer on the Capriccio label by Concerto Köln confirms the fertility of this composer’s imagination.) It was, perhaps, in the lamenting melodic sighs of the slow opening that linked the piece most clearly to the Mother Mary’s lamentations, the strings and theorbo of La Poème Harmonique infinitely touching, offering high contrast to the contrapuntal allegro that follows. What sets the allegro off from being a bracing contrapuntal romp is Durante’s effective use of long sustained notes against that busy surface, in the manner of a cantus firmus. The juxtaposition between the two modes of expression, even in such a limited space of a couple of minutes, is incredibly effective. The sheer fragility of the textures in the third movement Amoroso is remarkable, solo strings offering a vulnerable tissue against which the tutti offers galant-style solace. It was a remarkable performance, a bracing finale, revelling in the angst of the minor mode, itself huge contrast to the return of chant, this time from the Ostuni manuscript.

The gentle suspensions of the opening of the Pergolesi over a mobile bass offered the ideal entry into the Virgin’s pain. The soprano Sophie Junker sang throughout with the utmost purity of voice and expression. If mezzo Eva Zaïcik was not quite her equal, she remained a fine partner, while it was Dumestre who offered superb attention to detail (the staccato accents of ‘Cujus animam gementem’, for example) and a hugely affecting, lachrymose opening to ‘Vidit suum dulcem Natum’. Vocal trills were particularly of note, perfectly neat throughout from both. Dumestre’s reading is far from monochrome lamentation, illuminating Pergolesi’s many changes of viewpoint on grief. It was a remarkable evening, the final portion of the Stabat Mater (from ‘Quando corpus’ to the end) being encored.

Colin Clarke

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