Pergolesi's Revered Stabat Mater Revisited

It is undoubtedly far more romantic for us to imagine young Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) spending his last weeks on earth writing four chamber cantatas in a Franciscan monastery on the Bay of Naples than it was for him to write feverishly while dying of tuberculosis. Had he experienced a miracle cure, he would have lived to discover that his Stabat Mater was fast becoming one of the most widely disseminated and frequently printed musical manuscripts of the 18th century.

281 years after Pergolesi's death, the beauty and freshness of his 12-movement work for two high voices with string accompaniment continue to make it one of the most frequently recorded pieces of sacred music from the first half of the 18th century. Since 2010 alone, 30 new or reissued CDs of the work have appeared, with this Harmonia Mundi recording from May 2017, featuring soloists soprano Lucy Crowe and countertenor Tim Mead with La Nuova Musica conducted by David Bates, already greeted by a yet newer release.

One might be tempted to ask why all the excitement about an 18th century setting of 13th century verses by Jacobus de Benedictis that celebrate the suffering of the Virgin Mary at Jesus's cross? The reasons will be revealed as soon as you listen to the celestial harmonies in the work's 12 arias and duets, and revel in its miraculous interplay of voices and uncanny blend of suffering with unbridled joy.

Listening to this beautifully recorded release as a 24/96 hi-rez download, I was immediately struck by the uncanny way in which Crowe and Mead's voices blend as one. Crowe may be a high soprano who augments her work in baroque music with operatic roles that include Sophie in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, but her lower range sounds so much like a boy soprano's that it is often difficult to tell where her singing stops and Mead's begins.

Mead, in turn, softens the natural edge on his voice to blend with Crowe. Their unity is so complete that it brings to mind how beautifully Marilyn Horne blended with Joan Sutherland in their duets from Bellini's Norma. There isn't a higher compliment than that.

It is the soloists' seamless vocal blend, and the clarity of the instrumental mix, that earn this recording a place at the top of the sizable Pergolesi pile. To cite but one comparison, Florilegium's 2010 recording for Channel Classics may feature two equally accomplished artists, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and countertenor Robin Blaze, but the natural edge on their very different voices makes them sound as they have neither desire nor capacity to blend as one. In addition, while Florilegium's version was recorded in DSD64, its instruments sound thicker and weightier than La Nuova Musica's, and lack the pristine clarity that makes the newer rendition so special.

The new recording also includes two of J.S. Bach's 12 solo cantatas, both sung by Mead. As lovely as his voice may be, and as sincere an artist as he may be, a comparison of his rendition of Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 (Contented rest, beloved inner joy), with that from countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Freiburger Barockorchester finds the latter more compelling. Not only does Jaroussky have one of the most beguiling countertenor voices ever recorded, but he is also an even more expressive and imaginative artist. Jaroussky's fetching innocence and sense of peace in the opening aria are in a class by themselves, and his phrasing in the plaintive recitative that follows is remarkable. Robert Levine reviewed this performance, as it appears on Jaroussky's Bach•Telemann: Sacred Cantatas album for Erato, in the print issue of Stereophile last year, and praised the recording to the heavens. I heartily concur. (Note: Jaroussky has also recorded the Stabat Mater, with Julia Lezhneva and I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis).

As for the other Bach cantata on the disc, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV54 (Pray resist all sin), I'm afraid my innate resistance to the guilt-sin-blame syndrome could not be overcome by Mead's lovely interpretation. That's probably unfair of me, given how many light years we've come since this decidedly weighty, anything-but-period-instrument performance or practice recording.

Whether my failure to atone will lead to my eternal banishment from God's kingdom has yet to be determined. All that is certain is that Mead's singing in the Pergolesi, and his willingness to blend with Crowe's voice so completely, helps make this new Harmonia Mundi version of Pergolesi's masterpiece one to be savored.

foxhall's picture

I wonder if Harmonia Mundi is planning to encode with MQA?

I heard Channel Classics is taking a wait-and-see approach to MQA.

Not trying to hijack your music review (which are always excellent), just curious.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

MQA is PCM-based, and Channel Classics records in DSD. They would have to convert to PCM, and then encode in MQA.

Harmonia Mundi records in both DSD and PCM.

I do not know what either label's plans are at this time. That may change. But I'm about to head to Santa Fe for the Music Critic's Conference, and must table the inquiry for now. Plus, I'm not sure the labels would want to reveal their plans in this context.

What I can reveal is that I appreciate your strokes about my reviews. Thank you.

dalethorn's picture

Purchased. Gorgeous singing. I feel atoned already, and so should you.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Here I am, being told what I "should" do. You can't get away with anything on the net, can you, unless, perhaps, you're involved in politics....

So glad you like the recording.

dalethorn's picture

Thanks. Actually you don't need to do anything. Atonement, wherever or however it might be done, is a gift. Nothing you can do. Music is like that. I don't make it, although I have in the past. Today I just take in these gifts from others. Well, it was $17.98, but if I compare what I've gotten today with what I would have paid 40 years ago, $17.98 is god-awful cheap.