Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Marian Vespers -----> Classical Music Reviews
Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736) Marian Vespers [reconstructed by Malcolm Bruno] Sophie Daneman soprano Noemi Kiss alto The Choir of New College, Oxford The Academy of Ancient Music

Conducted by Edward Higginbottom

Recorded in St Jude's Church, Hampstead, London on 6-9 and 16-19 July 2002 ERATO 0927-46684-2

What is it about Pergolesi? Famous as a one-work composer (the Stabat Mater), there are yet a lot of recordings of his music, or music purporting in various ways to be by him, around. He also inspires the most sycophantic praise from those who seek to promote his music, in a way quite unknown for other composers. Unfortunately this constant desire to prove how great Pergolesi was soon gives the impression of a used car salesman; the more lavish the praise heaped upon the product the more the potential purchaser thinks "what's wrong with it?" In Pergolesi's case this can be summed up by noting that, in fact, Pergolesi's musical oeuvre is in a shambles. Nobody is quite sure exactly what he did write in his 26 years, and what has had his name added to it later in an attempt to cash in on the mystique of genius died young. Regrettably for the musicologists, Pergolesi did not write much of what we would like him to have written. For example, Pergolesi did not write a Marian Vespers. So what is this Erato recording?

Well, taking a cue from Bach's re-use of his own music to manufacture both the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B Minor from movements out of cantatas set to new words, Malcolm Bruno has assembled various bits of Pergolesi (some genuine psalm settings such as the wonderful Salve Regina for soprano and strings), added a few instrumental works (a sonata each for violin, cello and organ which may or may not be by Pergolesi) and then adapted other works (principally what Bruno refers to as "an autograph of an obscure and incomplete secular cantata") to create a Magnificat in four movements and a hymn on the text Lucis Creator Optime. This idea (known as a contrafactum) has the precedent of Bach, but in the case of Bach's works the contrafacta were made by the composer himself for a purpose that was known. Even the reconstruction by Simon Heighes of a lost St Mark Passion in 1994 was based on an existing libretto for a known performance and had the precedent of Bach's working practices as a model. In the case of this Pergolesi, the context of any Vesper service he may have written is unknown, the model of Pergolesi's contrafactum technique is non-existent and the sources for making such contrafacta are thin, obscure and muddled. Bruno provides a detailed note on his reasoning, but implicates himself somewhat by saying "any overall sense of Pergolesi's genius...has been shrouded from a scandalous series of forgeries that began immediately after his death" and "has continued up to the twentieth century". However, given that Bruno has chosen to construct a Magnificat rather than present the "obscure and incomplete secular cantata" as Pergolesi left it, is he not merely repeating the crime that he levels against Pergolesi's "teachers, colleagues and other unsuccessful if ambitious composers"? Can we not for once actually hear what Pergolesi did write, rather than what we believe that he should have written?

This Erato production is a glossy and well constructed one. As noted, the booklet is detailed, and attempts to justify the stance taken, for those who care to read it. But for the others, will not they be easily seduced by the slick packaging and undoubtedly fine performance into believing that they are seeing the real Pergolesi at last? As for the performances; taken on their own merits, there is much to enjoy. Sophie Daneman is, as ever, nothing less than wonderful - honey voiced and expressive, with just that hint of vulnerability in her singing. The Academy of Ancient music has tightened up its playing much more than was apparent, say, 10 years ago and although this writer feels the band is rather too large for the delicate rococo style of the music, the playing has a crispness and blend that belies the traditional (old fashioned perhaps?) view of scratchy period strings. Most pleasing is the change in the sound of the boys of New College Choir. Edward Higginbottom, a talented and thoughtful choir trainer, seems to have finally abandoned the experiment with that bizarre quivering vibrato that made a number of New College recordings from the mid-late nineties virtually unlistenable. The choir sings with considerable elegance here and the recording captures the beautiful acoustic of St Jude's, Hampstead, with clarity and warmth.

From the performance point of view there is much of value here. But this writer maintains that there are issues surrounding the musicological basis to this recording that make it not what it seems to be. Occasionally the early music movement still manages to make a real "discovery", but these are getting harder to find. It is unfortunate that, in 2002, manufactured "discoveries" should still be given the veneer of the real thing.

((c) Peter Wells 2002)

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