Reinterpretations and re-workings of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater are nothing new. The work’s delectable melodies and expressive harmonies, coupled with the myths surrounding its composition – Pergolesi’s retreat to a Neapolitan monastery and his death from tuberculosis weeks later at the age of 26 – prompted J. S. Bach, Paisiello, Salieri and others to try their hand at ‘improvements’.
No surprise, then, that Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie and the English Concert went for an alternative twist at this Eastertide concert. Out went the virginal ‘whiter than white’ approach that characterises many performances of this setting of the thirteenth century hymn about the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the cross. In came passion, drama and even a touch of waywardness.
In fact, Labadie cleverly found inspiration in precisely the qualities that so disturbed some of Pergolesi’s musical and ecclesiastical contemporaries. Written in 1736, the Stabat Mater followed Pergolesi’s hugely successful operatic intermezzo La Serva Padrona, and it uses the same musical language. Labadie and the English Concert therefore gave a strikingly operatic rendition of in amando Christum Deum, a dance-like version of Inflammatus et accensus and an astonishingly raw and intense reading of Fac ut portem Christi mortem.
Conductor and ensemble were fortunate in having two soloists who were perfectly attuned with this approach. Roberta Invernizzi and Sonia Prina have worked together before, collaborating on a disc of early opera and Baroque duets. Invernizzi’s light, bright soprano was the perfect foil for Prina’s muscular, supple contralto. It was Prina, though, who garnered most attention. Clad in a Kiss of the Spiderwoman gown, and clearly loving every minute of it, she articulated each phrase with consummate skill and care.
Both soloists demonstrated their mettle individually in the first half of the concert, with fine performances of Pergolesi’s Salve Regina (Invernizzi) and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater (Prini). An early work from 1712, Vivaldi’s setting of the sorrows of Mary is a pale companion piece to Pergolesi’s version, but Labadie and the English Concert did their best to spice up this simple, but beautiful, work with plenty of variations in tempi and dynamics. Their only problem during the concert was an audible sourness in the upper strings. This unsettled several sections of the vocal works, and spoiled what would otherwise have been a hauntingly tranquil start to Vivaldi’s Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro, which opened the concert.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.