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“Cross-Over” Pergolesi

In Baroque, Classical Music, Review on March 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Review – Stabat Mater (OAE The Works, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 26 March 2013)

Elin Manahan Thomas (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Hannah Conway (Host)
Steven Devine (Director/Conductor)

A great concert is made up great musicians and singers, a perfect, or as near as perfect performance, that vital ingredient – enthusiasm – and for me personally, learning something new, often about a piece of music I thought I knew well.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new series The Works and the most recent concert featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was that perfect combination.

Without a doubt Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of the finest pieces of church music. I first heard it – and sang it – as a choirboy in an organ loft and its sheer beauty has remained with me forever. It’s one of those pieces that I play when I am feeling like I need to turn the world off. And it always works.

Of course it is too easy to become wrapped up in the romanticism of his tragically short life and the fact that this piece was written in his final year.

Or you can take the OAE’s approach and cast a refreshing new light on this work.

Hosted, as it were, by Hannah Conway whose own enthusiasm was infectious, conductor Steven Devine not only simply but also clearly described the various devices and Baroque ‘affections’ that Pergolesi employed to such great effect. And he mentioned something that had simply not occurred to me in relation to Pergolesi before.

Pergolesi used operatic idioms in his Stabat Mater.

Now of course many of you may have already realized this. It wasn’t uncommon for composers from the baroque period onwards to ‘mix it up’. You hear it in Handel, Hasse, Mozart, Haydn and even JS Bach.

And yet it had never occurred to me that Pergolesi – who made his reputation mainly on the operatic stage – had done the same thing.

Pergolesi was as “cross-over” a composer as many of his contemporaries and those who followed them.

And this simple realization meant that I listened to the subsequent performance almost as it if was the first time.

And it was an excellent performance.

Both Elin Manahan Thomas and William Purefoy – himself somewhat of a joker who enlivened the proceedings even more with his observation about hormones and their effects on men and pregnant women – beautifully and sympathetically melded their voices in their duets and as soloists spun the vocal lines with both authority and sensitivity. Purefoy might not have the strongest lower register but the beauty of his tone and the way he coloured his voice was mesmerizing. And Manahan Thomas’s crystal clear and bright soprano was the perfect foil.

There is sometimes a tendency – perhaps to do with the romanticism more often associated with the piece – for tempos to be on the slower side but here Devine measured the pace and tempo of every movement brilliantly. Rhythms were sharp, phrasing was elegant and the music scoured for every effect which were intelligently done without being overplayed.

And in the same manner, in those movements with their newly revealed operatic bent, the singers didn’t shy away from emphasizing the more dramatic or lyrical aspects.

Each and every movement was beautifully performed but personally the standout moments were the sublime duets Quis est homo, qui non fleret and Quando corpus morietur as well as the dramatic brevity of the final Amen.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has created something really special with initiatives such as The Works and Night Shift. Of course they are mainly aimed at attracting new audiences but just as importantly I think they shed new light on music for those who think that they know them.

Whenever I now listen the Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the sacred will forever be tinged with more than a little humanity.

And for me that makes it just that little bit more special.

The next concert is on November 7 and features Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

Definitely one to book. And take a friend.

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