Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Shines in Newly Discovered Arrangement

Steven Winn on August 6, 2019
The American Bach Soloists in the SF Conservatory of Music

Like any mega-hit by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, or Prince, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (1736) is bound to be covered in multiple ways. Over the centuries, this reverent yet musically colorful meditation on Mary’s grief at the crucifixion of her son has been truncated, re-orchestrated, transcribed by Bach, and sung by various assortments of singers.

Portrait of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

The American Bach Soloists, in the midst of their annual Summer Bach Festival that doubles as a training academy for young musicians, made their own claim on the Pergolesi turf. On Saturday, August 2, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, conductor Jeffrey Thomas led a Stabat Mater that includes three choral settings of pieces originally done as duets. Additionally, pairing a baritone instead of an alto with the soprano makes this version, arranged by Pancrace Royer and first mounted in Lyon in 1754, an all but singular sensation. According to a program note by musicologist Beverly Wilcox, who turned up an 18th-century score fragment in a feat of 2010 detective work in France, Pergolesi’s piece may not have been heard in just this way for more than two centuries.

Fascinating as the scholarship may be, what mattered to the Conservatory audience was how gorgeous and engaging this Stabat Mater was. Soprano Mary Wilson and baritone William Sharp were the wonderful soloists, alert to the sacred somberness, operatic flourishes, and intimate character of the vocal lines throughout. The chorus was both assertive and supple, registering dynamic shifts and multi-voiced excitement, even when things got a little chaotic at one point. The orchestra sounded fully committed and in command throughout. Thomas, as usual, was a steady and enlivening force on the podium.

William Sharp

Right from the start, over a grave and transfixing ground bass, the music took hold. “The grieving mother stood weeping near the cross where hung her son” is how it begins, in agonized medias res. Singing in pellucid Latin, Wilson and Sharp conveyed the torment in transparently intertwined phrases.

Soprano Mary Wilson

Wilson brought a keen, urgent edge to her first aria, with its image of suffering and compassion as a sword. Sharp made his opening solo warm and empathic, with the feel of an opera singer waxing poetic to himself onstage alone. The duet that followed brought the two voices into striking, parallel alignment, heightened by a sudden spurt in tempo at the third stanza. Later on, in a more extensive duet, the soloists built to an embracing intensity and identification with the Virgin: “Make me weep with thee.”

Pergolesi, who wrote this masterwork as he was near death at age 26, had two high voices in mind for his soloists, a soprano and castrato. That laid the tight, close harmonies in clear relief. (A fine 2017 Stabat Mater performance by Voices of Music, with a soprano and female alto, captured that quality.) The soprano-baritone arrangement, along with the choral interpolations in this account produced both a dramatic tension and sense of spaciousness through the varied and expansive score.

Sharp’s sonorous, long melismas (“Make me bear the death of Christ”) conveyed the amplitude of emotion. Wilson made the falling phrases in one aria (“She saw her sweet offspring dying”) a musical embodiment of the text. A burnished choral Amen brought this distinctive performance to a gratifying end.

Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas | Credit: Eddie Frank

The second half of the program was devoted to Handel, his “Utrecht” Te Deum and Jubilate (1713). Neither of these paired works, his earliest sacred compositions in English, reveal the composer at anywhere near the height of his powers. (Messiah and Samson, among others, were still decades in the future.) Much of the writing, both vocal and orchestral, is perfectly pleasant but largely unenlivening. A patchy performance of the Te Deum didn’t help.

Thirteen (mostly) young soloists, positioned in the chorus behind the orchestra, were uneven, often tentative and sometimes unsure of a pitch. The ensemble chorus sections came across more decisively. The band played well enough, without ever making a strong case for the piece.

The shorter Jubilate was more successful. The chorus made a ringing affirmation early on. A duet for bass and countertenor was a graceful and fluent highlight. Ending well is always a good game plan. And so it was here, with a choral setting from Psalm 100 lit by dramatically deployed male and female forces and a flurry of harmonic surprises at the close. Handel, even in his lesser works, can set an audience on fire.