An album by Gerard Lesne, Giovanni Pergolesi, Il Seminario Musicale, and Véronique Gens
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The highest peak in the sierra of great Stabat Mater settings of the 18th Century, judging by popularity, is this one, written by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in the year before his tragic death at age 26. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater was composed explicitly to supplant the setting by Antonio Vivaldi, but in fact it resembles that fine setting in many details. It was performed widely and often throughout the 18th C, and has never been completely neglected. There are no less than 35 performances of it available now on CD and DVD; a duet, it has been recorded by many of the best known singers of our time: Kirby/Bowman, Jacobs/Henning, Bonney/Scholl, Bertagnalli/Mingardo, Waschinski/Chance, KIng/Chance, Röschman/Daniels, etc. The worst recording of it that I know is sung by Margaret Marshall and Lucia Terrani, with the London Symphony conducted by Claudio Abbado. The second worst is that is June Anderson and Cecilia Bartoli; Anderson's heavy vibrato and Bartoli's exaggerated manner make a deadly combo.
This performance by Veronique Gens and Gerard Lesne is easily my favorite, several notches better than any of the competition. What makes a good performance of this piece? Beautiful voices must be assumed, of course, but those voices must blend and complement each other, revealing their distinct timbres of emotion in their solo movements, then fitting each other like lock and key in the duets. Absolutely perfect tuning between the two voices moving in organum-like harmonic intervals is quintessential, and to my ears only Gens amd Lesne really achieve that perfection. Balance is also critical, between the singers and the instrumental continuo; on this CD, the elegant support of the theorbo emphasizes every turn of phrase from the singers. The recording acoustic of this session helps a lot, being very transparent and clear.
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is perhaps the most operatic of the great settings, and the one that dramatizes the turmoil of the scene most vividly: Mary the Mother of Jesus standing at the foot of the Cross upon which her Son hangs, as observed by the "poet" who shares in the pain. The two very dissimilar settings by the Scarlattis, father and son, paint less violent, more contemplative scenes in music, and the most contemplative of all is that of Boccherini, for voice and string quartet alone.
I'm making my way through this amazing chain of compositions, the Stabat Mater settings of the Italian Baroque. You'll find my reviews of: 1. The Vivaldi, by Ensemble 415 2. The Alessandro Scarlatti, by Il Seminario Musicale 3. The Domenico Scarlatti Stabat Mater a Dieci Voci, by Concerto Italiano 4. the Antonio Caldara Stabat Mater & Missa Dolorosa, by Rene Clemencic and Diego Fasolis 4. The Boccherini, by Ensemble 415
Of course there were glorious polyphonic settings of the Stabat Mater by earlier composers, notably Josquin Deprez and Palestrina, and there have been later settings of great power by Haydn, Rossini, and Arvo Pärt. Very few works of poetic mysticism have been treated so profoundly by composers of all eras.