While his renown can partially be traced to the popularity of his La serva padrona as a supreme example of Italian opera buffa style, is it above all his setting of the Stabat Mater stanzas -- lines composed for the Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- that etch his name firmly in the history of sacred music as the 18th century’s most printed musical work.
Though ancient history can be tinged with embellishment, the birth of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is often compared to that of Mozart’s composition of his famous Requiem – near the end of his life after contracting a fatal illness, most likely tuberculosis, and convalescing at a Franciscan monastery. While some historians instead date his Salve Regina as the final work, most agree Pergolesi was likely commissioned to compose this setting as a replacement for Allessandro Scarlatti’s rendition, which had been used annually in Naples for many a decade.
In any event, if one had to choose a single sacred work for a desert island collection it would be hard to argue against this Stabat Mater which, though often bathed in a light of near suffocating solemnity, also includes daring dissonances, visionary chromaticisms, expressive word painting and buoyant, stylish, operatic elements. Composed for solo soprano and alto voices with modest instrumental backing, the key element is the manner in which the bass line retains total command over musical twists and turns while still remaining economic and low-key, allowing a remarkable level of eloquence in the singing, in which even mild nuances are deeply affecting.
The arresting quality of this music is evident from the opening section, where a purposeful, walking bass line and taciturn strings set the stage for the vocal soloists to wind around each other in a serpentine, wondrous double helix that is unforgettable.
Though the poem’s twenty stanzas, which depict the sorrow of Mary while present at Christ’s crucifixion, are cast into twelve movements by Pergolesi, alternating between the soloists, it is perhaps the duet movements that are most memorable, above all the astonishing fifth section (which roughly translates from the original Latin as “What man would not weep to see the Mother of Christ in such suffering?”), in which short 4- and 5-note emotional bursts are resolved in a sorrowful, long-breathed melisma executed first by the soprano, piercing the heart, then repeated note for note in the alto range, as if in resignation, leading to a doubling of voices in stanzas six and seven.
Despite Pergolesi’s masterful control of atmosphere throughout, the music is anything but sluggish and dour, with several bouncy, operatic sections, such as the ninth movement’s visionary duet. Still, the overall composition maintains a devotional air that never recedes, not even for a moment.
A quick glance at library or online catalogs reveals a healthy availability of Stabat Mater recordings, many pushed by baroque labels featuring ‘famous’ house soloists. In my view, these are to be avoided, as they often fail to acknowledge the composition’s purpose, and instead seem more like “hear Soloist X’s take on this famous sacred warhorse.”
After testing several dozen over the years, I've settled on a short list of four -- three on period instruments that most successfully blend vocal elements with solid pacing, as well as one from the old school.
Perhaps the most solid reference version is that on Hyperion (CDA66294) conducted by sacred master Robert King featuring Gillian Fisher and Michael Chance, backed by The King’s Consort. This is a lush, communicative performance that nonetheless features shading so subtle that no elements seem exaggerated and tempi appear natural and spot on. While countertenor Chance has a great lower and mid-range, he can be a little sugary on top, with Fisher clear as a bell in slow movements, while adopting a more swooping, operatic approach in quicker movements (sans any noticeable vibrato) that serves the music respectfully.
Slightly more extroverted is a splendid recording headed by Gerard Lesne (who also performs alto) with renowned soprano Veronique Gens supported by Il Semario musicale on the Virgin Veritas label. Here the conductor’s touch is a bit more salient: tasteful swells, telling pauses, a marginally wider dynamic range and greater contrast in tempi. Gens, also a Mozart specialist, is quite lithe and athletic in faster movements and a bit more ‘operatic’, not so much in vibrato use, but in inherent theatricality, while Lesne tackles the fourth movement’s coloratura adroitly, employing less legato than Chance.
A less famous ‘sleeper’ version is available from our friends at Mirare from the Ricercar Consort under Philippe Pierlot, featuring a Spanish vocal duo: Nuria Rial and Carlos Mena. The biggest difference is the theorbo’s greater prominence in a uniquely rich mix, which coaxes less legato from the strings in punchy rhythms. Soprano Rial has a rich lower register of tremendous power, yet still scales the heights without noticeable straining, and if Mena is marginally less distinguished that the two more famous altos, his fully rounded tone blends seamlessly with Rial’s as if of one mind. This is a version that demands to be heard.
ClassicsOnline that, at $9.99, is a bit of a steal.
Regardless of your chosen performance team, no library can be considered complete without at least one copy of Pergolesi’s classic, which is timeless, universally accessible and overwhelmingly affective.