Music history textbooks usually bring up Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in the context of his contributions to comic opera, which influenced Mozart. But his religious works, particularly his setting of the Stabat Mater liturgical text, are among the best of the pre-classical period. Several recent recordings serve as a reminder of how glorious this music is.
Born with the family name Draghi, he was called “Pergolesi” as a nickname indicating that his ancestors came from Pergola, a municipality in central Italy. The most amazing aspect of his biography are his dates: 1710 – 1736. This innovative and prolific composer died of tuberculosis at 26! He wrote his celebrated Stabat Mater in the final weeks of his life, as he lay dying in the monastery where he received hospice care. Somehow, knowing that makes this grand work all the more powerful.
The “Stabat Mater” itself is a 13th-century hymn that has been turned into large-scale works countless times (Rossini wrote perhaps the most famous version; it took him 10 years). Used in the Catholic liturgy to show compassion for the suffering of the Virgin Mary, the text begins, “The sorrowful mother was standing by the Cross weeping while her son was hanging.” These words have inspired composers to find new ways of evoking pain and sorrow in music. Pergolesi, who faced his own mortality as he wrote, succeeded transcendently.
Unlike the Rossini arrangement, Pergolesi’s version does not employ a chorus, but only two solo voices – soprano and mezzo-soprano – and orchestra. Limiting the voices to two women gives his setting a heartbreaking intimacy. A recent recording on Harmonia Mundi by Ensemble Resonanz serves as a good introduction to the piece. After a short orchestral introduction, soprano Giulia Semenzato and mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot come in with aching suspensions starting at 1:03. The series of long dissonances releasing downward are word-painting, representing Mary’s heavy heart.
The playing of Hamburg-based Ensemble Resonanz is richly detailed under the baton of Riccardo Minasi. While both voices work well with the orchestra, they are not particularly well matched with each other. Semenzato has a distracting habit of relying on “blues vibrato” (starting a note straight and then vibrating at the end), while Richardot barely vibrates her much darker voice at all, as is appropriate to this period.
Not every moment of the Stabat Mater text is sad. Pergolesi uses a faster tempo and greater energy for a duet based on the text, “Grant that my heart may burn in loving Christ my Lord.” This movement’s vivacious mood suits Semenzato’s voice better than the work’s somber opening.
Another new Stabat Mater recording, also from Germany, has more serious and numerous weaknesses. On the JPK Musik label, this version features soprano Monika Brockmann and mezzo-soprano Sandra van Gemert. The Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Volker Hartung.
Arguably, the biggest problem here is the orchestra. The CNPO has neither the focused tone nor the precise phrasing of Ensemble Resonanz. Hartung’s leadership is heavy-handed, preventing the singers from breathing any lightness into their parts. Although it is appropriate for Brockmann to seem weighed down in the aria “Vidit suum dulcem natum” (“She saw her sweet son dying forsaken”), it’s more like she’s being crushed by the orchestra than by grief.
Poor intonation is also a consistent issue on this recording. When Brockmann duets with van Gemert on the final movement, “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body decays”), the beginnings of phrases pull quite sharp. Do notice Pergolesi’s crystalline string writing, though; it’s no wonder Mozart was a fan.
Ironically, the most recently released Stabat Mater recording is also the oldest. It is also the best, by a wide margin. Around the time of early-music vocal conductor René Clemencic’s death in March 2022, Decca put out a retrospective, The Art of René Clemencic. The Austrian harpsichordist, recorder player, and music director had a long and influential career as leader of the Clemencic Consort, which often featured countertenor Gérard Lesne. This collection includes two of Pergolesi’s settings of the Salve Regina, as well as his Stabat Mater, plus some works by other composers.
Lesne sings the mezzo-soprano part in this important 1985 recording with soprano Mieke van der Sluis. It’s a markedly different experience to hear this music played on period instruments. The strings have a bounce and sheen missing from the other versions discussed here. It also makes a difference that the recording was made in a large church, as it would have been heard in Pergolesi’s time (although the composer, of course, never got to hear it at all). As a comparison, here is that opening duet with the dramatic suspensions; the dissonances are enhanced by the authentic 18th-century tuning and the slow-reverb acoustics.
Unlike the other pairs of singers mentioned here, van der Sluis and Lesne blend like extensions of the same voice, and the instruments are part of that organic whole.
Besides his Stabat Mater, Pergolesi wrote about 40 other works in his short life. Among those are three settings of the liturgical text Salve Regina, based on another hymn to the Virgin Mary. The last of those, composed in the year of his death, is scored in A minor for alto, strings, and continuo. On this re-issue of the same 1985 recording that included the Stabat Mater, Lesne is the soloist with the Clemencic Consort. When he sings the opening aria, “Ad te clamamus” (We call to you), there’s a breathtaking delicacy in his tone, not to mention perfect intonation that makes the most of the interplay between voice and instruments.
To prove I’m not just a curmudgeon shaking my fist at the youngsters and shouting, “Back in my day, people knew how to play Pergolesi!” let me end this column with a new and quite spectacular recording of some rarely heard sacred music by this great composer.
The Prodigies of Divine Grace in the Conversion and Death of St. William, Duke of Aquitaine was an opera-like sacred drama that Pergolesi wrote at the ripe old age of 21 as a senior project at music school in Naples. It has somber religious content as well as a comedic character, a juxtaposition fashionable in Naples at the time.
This performance by Ensemble Alraune on NovAntiqua Records is the first time the complete work has been recorded on period instruments. It was a premiere worth waiting for. The playing, conducted by Mario Sollazzo, simply sparkles. Sollazzo captures the range of expressive nuance that makes Pergolesi’s instrumental writing so fine. If you’re familiar with his comic opera La serva padrona, you’ll recognize the style from the first moment of the overture.
The vocal writing, too, is more in the style of opera than what one might expect in a sacred work. The half-dozen soloists are all outstanding, including the two featured in this elegant duet: soprano Monica Piccinini and mezzo-soprano Federica Carnevale share clarity and passion in their rendering of these difficult parts.
Besides gratitude that this recording was made, listening to it also evokes sorrow that Pergolesi had so short a time to share his gifts with posterity. But at least his music continues to flourish.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.