Holy Week in Naples has a historical tradition of being a musically turbid affair, with snatches of religious music from the open-doored churches mingling with the marches from processing confraternities and popular ditties sung by groups of people on the street. The discovery of an edition of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in Lyon that contained variants of the usual scoring (substituting different voice-pairing movements as well as four- and five-part choral movements) from the original of two upper voices and strings/continuo inspired Franck-Emmanuel Comte (Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu’s Director) to create a concert that captured the musical flavour of an 18th-century Neapolitan Holy Week by interspersing the movements of the alternatively-scored Pergolesi with local folk renderings of religious works, along with secular (and, at times, bawdy) canzone and tarantelle. Exactly what the connections between Lyon, Naples and Pergolesi were, Tuesday night’s programme note didn’t make clear, but Comte’s production – part whimsy, part scholarship – combined with the excellence of all the performers, made for an inspiring, sparkling and entertaining evening.
The instrumentation throughout was deployed in a nuanced and precise way: pizzicato strings were used to impart a less solemn atmosphere to the secular items (in particular, the ‘jazz’ plucked bass in a couple of the tarantelle was highly effective), and a splendidly effusive ‘gypsy violin’ added licentiousness to the tarantella ‘A cantino’; many of the secular items were also accompanied by syncopated percussion. The continuo instruments too added variety and contrast: a chamber organ and a harpsichord were used to summon, by turns, warmth, solemnity, bite and frivolity, and the alternating use of theorbo and baroque guitar pointed up the difference between sacred and secular.
The singing was perfection from all concerned, but the two upper voices – the soprano Heather Newhouse and the contralto Anthea Pichanick – need special mention. Newhouse has a strong, sweet voice that worked well with the legato suspension-heavy movements of the Pergolesi, but which displayed astonishing agility and drama in the tarantella ‘La Cicerenella’, a duet with the tenor Sebastian Monti, that was sung at barely believable velocity. Pichanick’s voice is simply glorious, a solid honeyed contralto with just the tiniest bit of warm vibrato, adding weight and ardour to all of the Pergolesi movements she sang in (particularly ‘Fac ut portem’), and a generous slice of coquettishness to the secular items.
The revised version of the Pergolesi worked well, moving from the traditional pairing in the opening movement to soprano and tenor for ‘O quam tristis’, a baritone (Romain Bockler) in ‘Quae morebat’, alternating soprano/contralto and tenor/bass pairs in ‘Quis est homo’ (with some nicely pushed crescendi to emphasise the suspensions) and a bass (Guillaume Olry) for ‘Eja Mater’. The choral movements were also nicely executed – the singers simply doubling the instrumental parts in either legato homophonic phrases or contrapuntal entries (‘Fac ut ardeat’).
The other material also provided some special moments. The gentle rocking of a repeated three-note plucked phrase in ‘Donna Isabella’ underscoring a homophonic chorus of male voices from the back, was contrasted by a dramatic soprano top line from the stage. Also exotic were the almost-Eastern harmonies in the traditional Neapolitan setting of the Stabat Mater, whose lengthy melismatic lines contrasted well with the short saltarello instrumental introduction. For ‘La Carpinese’ (another tarantella) the ensemble surrendered to a completely modern idiom, performing it as a smoky, sexy rhumba over a slow tread from the drone strings of the theorbo, with Newhouse’s gently expressive soprano sinuously delineating the melody above.