Pergolesi, La Morte di San Guiseppe M station -----> Classical Music Reviews

La Morte di San Guiseppe Giovanni Batista Pergolesi Recorded live in Naples, 1990 Warner Fonit 0927 43308-2 Michele Farruggia (tenor) San Guiseppe Bernadette Manca di Nissa (contralto) Maria Santissima Maria Angeles Peters (soprano) San Michele Patrizia Pace (soprano) Amor Divino Orchestro Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli Conducted by Marcello Panni

Given that Pergolesi is one of music's greatest "one work composers" it is heartening to see that some of the splendid output of his short but highly active career is finally being made available. La Morte di San Guiseppe is a major work in the Oratorio genre dating from the 1730s, although the exact circumstances of its creation remain uncertain. The work has several notable features, not least the distribution of parts among the vocal soloists; the major roles of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary are given to a tenor and a contralto voice respectively. Both are surprising given the overwhelming dominance of castrati or sopranos in 18th century Italian music. The two soprano parts here, the Archangel Michael and `Divine Love' are both secondary, the latter being an essentially minor role. The performance is a live recording, so a certain allowance has to be made for small details that would not be allowed in a studio recording with its greater opportunities for multiple takes. In general the instrumental playing is consistently lively and pleasurable although the string blend is often rather wayward and intonation is not always as tight as it could be. The continuo cello is rather romantically played, and, for my money, often too legato. Likewise, the harpsichord suffers from sounding tinny in the recording, although both it and the organ continuo are imaginatively played. The other parts of the large continuo group consist of archlute/theorbo, baroque harp and viola da gamba. The theorbo and viola da gamba also feature, unusually, as obbligato duet instruments in the splendid aria Non puU chi tutto puU and the wonderful playing makes this aria an absolute highlight. Other instrumental obbligatos are given to oboes and a pair of horns, both well played. There is no chorus and only a couple of ensemble numbers, including a solitary concluding quartet, even involving the recently dead Saint Joseph on the tenor line. The bulk of the work is therefore made up of da capo arias and this is where the biggest weaknesses, and some major strengths, are to be found. Of the soloists, the contralto Bernadette Manca di Nissa is superb; a rich velvety contralto voice full of warmth and expression. The tenor Michele Farruggia, singing the title role, is less satisfying. There is in his voice a lingering suspicion of bel canto; an operatic style of several decades later that sits uneasily with this nimble high baroque repertoire. He produces some deft touches of ornamentation, but in general his voice is rather inflexible and lacks the suppleness that gives life to the lyrical phrases of Pergolesi's understated melodic craft. Of the two sopranos, Maria Angeles Peters is an unfortunate choice. While there is undoubtedly brilliance in her voice, and some wonderful pieces of coloratura, the sound she makes is generally rather piercing and is simply not a very beautiful noise. In contrast, Patrizia Pace in the small role of Amor Divino is wonderful. This is a voice to drown in, with purity, expressivity and a gorgeous floating upper range. Given that there are no other recordings of this fine and undeservedly obscure work in the catalogue, this Warner release must be welcomed. However, it is something of a mixed bag, which shows many of the shortcomings that kept Italian early music groups in the second rank until the later 1990s. (Peter Wells)

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