WORKS: Stabat mater
PERFORMER: Jeni Bern (soprano), Jeanette Ager (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Carwood (tenor), Giles Underwood (bass), David Goode (organ); Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, London Musici/Stephen Darlington
CATALOGUE NO: GCCD 4029 (distr. Discovery)
The Stabat mater (1767) was one of Haydn’s greatest international successes, and the only 18th-century setting of the medieval poem to rival Pergolesi’s in popularity. Newly promoted to Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court, Haydn relished the chance of flexing his muscles as a composer of sacred music. And many of the numbers – above all the choruses – have a rhetorical power and minor-keyed poignancy new in his music. The whole work represents a crucial staging post in Haydn’s development from a talented journeyman to the greatest composer of his age.
Stephen Darlington’s modest, straightforward performance is enjoyable up to a point. The Christ Church trebles sing with an attractive breathy innocence, though the lower voices can produce some raw sounds and at times overwhelm the boys in the tuttis. And while Darlington chooses realistic tempi he is inclined to hold them too rigidly: beats tend to be evenly stressed and bass lines too often plod. Apart from soprano Jeni Bern, with her limpid tone and graceful phrasing, the soloists are personable but not specially distinctive. Two rival recordings – each using period instruments – from Pinnock (DG Archiv) and Harnoncourt (Teldec) offer altogether more incisive, charismatic singing and playing. Both versions are acutely responsive to the work’s special tinta – its angular lines, sobbing, broken phrases and grieving chromaticism. Harnoncourt, predictably, is the more upfront and uncompromising. But my vote would go to Pinnock, whose broader, more subtly shaped reading is hardly less dramatic than Harnoncourtbut admits of that much more compassion and lyrical warmth. Richard Wigmore