Arts & Events

American Bach Soloists Perform Pergolesi’s STABAT MATER

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday August 12, 2019 - 12:59:00 PM

Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) enjoyed a brief, mercurial career, dying at age 26. His most famous works were composed in Naples, where he drew upon local dialect to write comic operas or intermezzi, the most well-known of which is La Serva padrona (The Maid-Mistress). Pergolesi set his dramatic works in Naples and dealt with ordinary characters in everyday situations. With his mercurial musical style, Pergolesi vividly brought his characters to life. He did likewise in his sacred work, the Stabat Mater, which he composed in his last days. Here too, as in his works for the stage, Pergolesi strove to emphasise affect, or the emotions.

In the second concert of their 2019 Summer Festival, American Bach Soloists performed Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on Friday, August 2, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For the second half of the program, ABS presented George Frideric Handel”s “Utrecht” Te Deum & Jubilate (1713). This concert was dubbed “Treasures from Lyon” because the scores for both works were discovered in the library of the venerable Concert de Lyon, France. Soloists for Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater were ABS stalwarts soprano Mary Wilson and baritone William Sharp. Jeffrey Thomas conducted the period instrument orchestra and the American Bach Choir.  

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater begins with a brief instrumental introduction. Then Mary Wilson and William Sharp offered a stirring duet depicting the weeping Mother beneath the cross. Next Mary Wilson sang the aria “cajus animam” describing the Mother’s mournful soul. Possessed of an incomparably bright, lush and full soprano, Mary Wilson also combines flawless technique with an ability to get inside the music, as it were, and to vocally portray the emotional content of the words she sings. In this aria, she effortlessly navigated the jerky, iambic rhythm so typical of Neapolitan popular songs. Mary Wilson has for many years been an invaluable asset to the American Bach Soloists. Likewise, baritone William Sharp has long been associated with American Bach Soloists, and he too brings superb musicianship to his performance. When teamed together with Mary Wilson, as in the duet “Quae moerebat,” this pair of singers is outstanding; and here they excelled in Pergolesi’s operatic showpiece, a piece that some critics, however, have found inappropriate in a sacred work. No one, however, has found fault with the ensuing soprano aria, Visit suum,” which Mary Wilson sang exquisitely, wringing from it every expressive element of pain and tenderness, and bringing it to a plaintive close with a forlorn pianissimo. The American Bach Choir sang a lively choral piece, “Fac ut ardeat,” which was followed by a lengthy duet, “Sancta Mater,” sung by Wilson and Sharp. I personally find the text of this duet quite masochistic in its emphasis on the narrator’s ardent wish to share Christ’s agony and pain. Oh well, Christianity has its masochistic side. This same morbid sentiment is echoed in the baritone aria, “Fac ut portem, which follows. A duet ensues, and its allegro section was a highlight of this performance. Likewise, the ensuing duet, “Quando corpus morietur,” offered an ever so plaintive wish that upon death the narrator’s soul would go to Heaven. To close this Stabat Mater of Pergolesi, the American Bach Choir sang thel fugal “Amen” in high contrapuntal style. Throughout, Jeffrey Thomas led his instrumental and vocal forces in a taut, focused rendition of the score. 

After intermission, Handel’s “Utrecht” Te Deum & Jubilate of 1713 was performed. This work celebrated the eagerly anticipated ending of the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713/14). Handel used it as a showpiece to impress the English monarchy, and he seems to have been successful in this regard. It is, in fact, a showy, florid work for orchestra and chorus. 

Here it proved a welcome vehicle for American Bach Soloists’ period instruments and American Bach Choir’s exquisite voices. Among the latter, an alto, a tenor, and a bass were given ample opportunity to shine. Before the concert began, Jeffrey Thomas read out the names of the American Bach Choir’s soloists; but he failed to identify which singers performed which parts, so I am unable to attach names to the fine alto, tenor, and bass who were so prominently featured in this work by Handel.