This anthology of devotional music from 18th-century Venice and Naples offers an interesting and varied programme. Best known is Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, but the settings by Domenico Scarlatti and Bononcini stand well in comparison. The motets by Lotti, Caldara and Alessandro Scarlatti are real discoveries; Norrington’s performances of the latter are particularly fine. Guest’s Pergolesi suffers from a focus of sound which makes the interpretation seem somewhat generalised. However, all these performances give pleasure, while the music is melodically fresh and rhythmically vital.-Terry Barfoot
The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Catholic hymn to Mary, which portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ's mother during his crucifixion. Its author may be either the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi or Pope Innocent III. The title comes from its first line, Stabat Mater dolorosa, which means "the sorrowful mother was standing". The hymn is sung at the liturgy on the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Stabat Mater has been set to music by many Western composers.
Baroque music is not the usual province of soprano Anna Netrebko, or contralto Marianna Pizzolato, or conductor Antonio Pappano, or the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma, so the listener might approach this tribute to the 300th anniversary of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with some skepticism, but the performers do a terrific job. The orchestra uses modern instruments, so this is never going to be mistaken for a recording by Baroque specialists, but everyone involved approaches the challenge with such sensitivity and such evident excitement that listeners who don't demand absolute adherence to cutting-edge developments in early music practice are likely to be swept up.
Certainly the somber beauty of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, and strings has a lot to do with its popularity. But it must be said that the story of the 26-year-old composer completing the work on his deathbed has always been too romantic for the public–or the music business–to resist. "The instant his death was known," wrote the famous 18th-century traveler Dr. Burney, "all Italy manifested an eager desire to hear and possess his productions." And so it's been ever since. In spite of the competition already on the market, it seems Decca just had to get its prize lyric soprano and hotshot young countertenor together to record the piece. –Matthew Westphal