Les Talens Lyriques & Christophe Rousset - Pergolesi: Stabat Mater - Gramophone

A final example of Bach’s insatiable appetite for critiquing fresh musical worlds occurred when the composer arranged Pergolesi’s Stabat mater as Tilge, Höchster, BWV1083, in 1747. One can only guess at his motivation apart from an unashamed desire for the sheer diversion of textual redistribution and expanded instrumentation (perhaps gently smirking at the marmoreal aesthetic by stripping the music of its incense?) in mastering his young colleague’s language.

Yet it’s ultimately the graphic imagery of this high-Baroque monument that constitutes its greatest draw, a sound wedded to Italian language, esprit and light, and uncannily conjuring visual comparisons of the prostrate Virgin Mary at the foot of her son’s Cross. This is where Christoph Rousset’s new reading is unwaveringly focused, lovingly nurtured over time with its studied control of texture and dissonance, and allowing the exquisitely matched Sandrine Piau and Christopher Lowrey the freedom to inhabit Pergolesi’s quicksilver repository of sensuality and colour. Then, in the ‘Sancta mater’ and ‘Fac ut portem’, Rousset delivers his coup de theâtre, abandoning febrile sadness for a marked contrast of extended reflection – rather than the passing genuflections of the preceding movements. It’s a deeply affecting strategy.

If Rousset essentially has the architecture nailed, the set pieces are all vocal treats on their own terms. The opening movement can so often be an arch indulgence of vocal indigestion, as indeed can its framing equivalent, ‘Quando corpus’, but all the duets are mellifluously and elegantly delivered (‘O quam tristis’ is as fine as you’ll ever hear it) and Piau and Lowrey command their varied emotional states with equal aplomb.

The additional Latin settings by fellow Neapolitans, the fluent and capable Nicola Porpora and Leonardo Leo, are suitable companions on paper. These quasi solo cantatas – each wonderfully accompanied by the collective brilliance of Les Talens Lyriques – are taken by soprano and alto respectively but they fail to do much more than re-confirm the exceptional quality of the 26-year-old’s deathbed masterpiece.

01 May 2020