Steffani: Stabat mater dolorosa

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COMPOSERS: Handel,Steffani
WORKS: Steffani: Stabat mater dolorosa; Handel: Dixit Dominus, HWV 232
PERFORMER: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

Agostino Steffani, born near Venice, spent much of his working life in Germany, in Munich and in Hanover. As an opera composer, he was highly sensitive to words and their emotional expression in music, evident in this Stabat mater, written as his ‘last and greatest work’ (in his own words) shortly before his death in 1728. It is for the breath-taking sonority of two violins, three violas and bass accompanying five soloists and choir.  
The Sixteen (expanded here to 18) with 19 strings and continuo, perform the Stabat mater with deep conviction and profound feeling. The second movement, ‘Cuius animam…’ opens with seamless choral counterpoint followed by an agonisingly beautiful trio of soloists.
The Virgin Mary’s grief evokes a soaring high tenor line; the bass soloist describes Jesus ‘in torment’ in poignant simplicity, free of any affectation – and plumbing the depths of a bottom C.
Such expressiveness is matched by instruments – after choir and soloist call and respond in ‘Eia Mater’, the closing string ritornello sounds almost texted. The final chorus, reflecting on own death, is punctuated by dramatic silences before parts pile one on the other is sustained dissonance. 
Dixit Dominus is no less beautifully managed with Elin Manahan Thomas an effortless soprano in ‘Tecum principium…’, a modest tempo clarifying the fast parlando choral text of ‘Tu es sacerdos…’ and highly imaginative organ continuo opening the Gloria.
The recording seemed rather distant and limp until I tweaked the volume above my normal listening level. Adjusted, it proved clean and spacious, contributing to a truly memorable disc. George Pratt