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Pergolesi's Stabat Mater: a guide to the composer's masterpiece and its best recordings

Pergolesi’s harrowing portrayal of the grief of the Virgin Mary captures Kate Bolton-Porciatti’s attention as she names the finest recordings of his Stabat Mater

A picture of Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506and the inspiration of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater
Published: July 8, 2022 at 12:28 pm

‘My poor, favourite Pergolesi has just died of a chest infection… but his Stabat Mater is considered to be the masterwork of Latin music.’

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When the French writer Charles de Brosses visited Naples in 1739, he lamented the passing of one of its finest composers: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. By the end of the 18th century, Pergolesi had been declared ‘the Raphael and Virgil of music’, and his two most famous works, the intermezzo La serva padrona of 1733 and the Stabat Mater, said to have been written on his death-bed, were pronounced ‘as indestructible as nature’.

Pergolesi’s Naples was a city of powerful extremes: blighted by poverty, disease, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, yet splendid with its lavish Baroque palazzi, opera houses and hundreds of churches adorned with art and resonant with music. The city whose first name was Parthenope – the ‘maiden-voiced’ siren – lured with her vocal music. The soundscape of Naples’s Golden Age ranged from the brouhaha of street cries and popular songs to tragic operas and comic works in Neapolitan dialect, melodious cantatas and breezy intermezzi. Above all, sacred music flooded the city, pouring through its streets in religious processions and sacred dramas, seeping through the walls of churches, chapels and oratories.

What is the Stabat Mater?

The Latin poem Stabat mater dolorosa (long attributed, albeit questionably, to the 13th-century Umbrian Jacopone da Todi) is an emotive account of the Virgin’s sufferings at the foot of the Cross. It belongs to the tradition of Latin ‘sequences’ – compressed, metrical, rhyming verses on religious subjects. Despite its formal rigour, the poem explodes with torment and lacerating grief, and its rhyme scheme (aab ccb) poignantly exploits the effects of anticipation and memory. The maternal sentiment that impregnates the work resonated particularly in Naples, where the sorrows of motherhood were heightened by the fearful infant mortality rate, and where some 200 churches were dedicated to Mary Find the Stabat Mater lyrics here

Who sang the Stabat Mater?

Traditionally, lay brotherhoods sang the sequence in solemn religious processions, but later it was incorporated into the liturgy for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The origins of Pergolesi’s setting are shrouded in mystery. Tradition has it that he wrote the work shortly before he died for a noble Neapolitan confraternity: the Knights of the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows. It was probably intended for their eponymous feast day in the church of San Luigi di Palazzo, where Pergolesi’s patron – the Duke of Carafa di Maddaloni – had a private chapel. Perhaps it was meant to replace Alessandro Scarlatti’s earlier setting for the same confraternity, as both works are for similarly spare resources: two solo voices, strings and basso continuo.

How did Pergolesi set the Stabat Mater to music?

Stylistically, Pergolesi echoed the lyrical melodies and transparent textures of his comic intermezzo La serva padrona. Particularly controversial to 18th-century listeners were the dancing rhythms, syncopations, gambolling motifs and decorative trills which seemed to trivialise the grief-laden text. The composer Charles Avison claimed the young composer had not understood the difference between ‘the tenderness or passion of a theatrical scene and the solemnity of devotion.’

Yet, within the lyrical idiom, Pergolesi exploits the effects associated with Empfindsamkeit – the ‘heightened expressive style’ that steeped the contemporary European aesthetic. In the opening duet, for instance, weeping suspensions and the key of F minor set the haunting tone; Christian Schubart later associated that key with ‘groans of misery and longing for the grave’, while Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt allied it with passio (suffering). In the second movement, Cuius animam gementem, off-beat rhythms deliberately distort the natural accents of the text to evoke the stabbing sword that pierces the Virgin’s soul, while acidulous trills convey her anguish. Similarly, against the dancing rhythms of Quae moerebat, syncopations and trills suggest emotional turbulence.

Chromatic colours and oscillating dynamics paint the Eja mater, in which the supplicant pleads to grieve together with Mary. Then, in Fac ut portem, listeners share the tortures of Christ’s passion as the music sears with dissonances, gashing leaps, unnerving silences and jabbing dotted rhythms. Finally, ceaseless falling motifs bathe the closing movement – Quando corpus morietur – in an eternal flow of tears. This is a heart-rending meditation on death and suffering by the 26-year-old composer, all too aware of life’s fragility.

The best recordings of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater

Antonio Florio (conductor)

Maria Grazia Schiavo (soprano), Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo); Cappella de’ Turchini

Eloquentia EL 0505

No other performers are as fully conversant with Neapolitan Baroque music as Antonio Florio and his Naples-based ensemble, the Cappella de’ Turchini (now re-named Cappella Neapolitana). Decades of experience researching and performing the city’s musical heritage gives them the edge when it comes to understanding the kaleidoscopic range of styles that inspires Pergolesi’s work, from chant-like hymns to popular songs, pastoral drones, dances, laments, light intermezzo-style airs and tragic operatic duets. Florio strikes a fine balance between soave lyricism and articulate rhetoric, while soprano Maria Grazia Schiavo turns from fresh-voiced innocent to impassioned tragedienne. Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s effortlessly straight-toned voice is nonetheless richly expressive. Both singers add stylish embellishments, fully in keeping with Baroque idiom. They’re placed in the midst of the instrumental ensemble, which in turn weaves an intricate tapestry of sound rather than providing mere accompaniment. The continuo group includes an archlute, reflecting the Neapolitan penchant for plucked strings, and a chamber organ, apt for the liturgical context.

There’s real intimacy – and ultimately, real humanity – to this chamber-like performance, which seems to build inexorably to the Quando corpus morietur, a chillingly stark reflection on mortality, with the two voices floating ethereally over spectral violins and a halting rhythmic pulse. One can almost smell the incense in the flickering candlelight of
San Luigi.

Recorded in 2005, the sound is clean and detailed (though there are a couple of audible edits), while the disc’s other two works are Pergolesi’s Salve regina and the premiere recording of NicolaPorpora’s ravishingly lyrical setting of the same text. Meanwhile, before we head towards the runners-up (below), leave space on your library shelves, too, for the accounts by Emma Kirkby, James Bowman and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood – a radiant performance, though its purity of timbre is perhaps a shade too Anglican for Pergolesi’s distinctly Roman Catholic idiom – and Véronique Gens, Gérard Lesne and Il Seminario Musicale, a profoundly moving interpretation that distils the work’s spiritual essence, despite the overly reverberant recorded sound.

Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor)

Naïve OP 30441

Alessandrini illuminates the relationship between words and music in this acclaimed Concerto Italiano recording from 2007. Single strings sketch a stark backdrop – throwing the text into high relief – and tempos veer from the ponderous opening to the breathless Quae moerebat, reflecting the work’s emotional extremes. Gemma Bertagnolli’s silvery soprano lightens the burnished tones of Sara Mingardo’s contralto; the two voices creating a chiaroscuro to rival the Neapolitan Caravaggisti. Though Alessandrini occasionally sacrifices line to focus on detail, the account never lacks drama.

Philippe Pierlot (conductor)

Mirare MIR00

The Ricercar Consort’s sound is at once lustrous and intimate in this 2005 recording, wrapping the listener in a velvet shroud. The voices of Núria Rial and Carlos Mena have real fervour, and they’re so beautifully paired that at times they seem to melt into one. Both, too, paint the words and articulate phrases with great sensitivity. Pierlot carries the work’s gravitas and piety without ever being heavy handed, and he lightens the shades where necessary.

Christophe Rousset (conductor)

Decca 466 1342

For sheer beauty of sound, Barbara Bonney and Andreas Scholl are matchless, and Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques instrumentalists play with a suave – rather Mozartian – style. Of the two singers on this 1999 recording, Scholl comes closer to the sacred heart of the piece; Bonney’s approach is more operatic and extrovert. Musically, this is a glorious performance, but – with the exception of the transcendently beautiful duet Quando corpus morietur, where the two singers reach a shared, spiritual vision – it sounds more like a concert piece than a religious lament.

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(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Authors

Kate Bolton-PorciattiJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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