Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Stabat Mater" performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I had the opportunity of hearing the orchestra’s “Stabat Mater” program at the Choral Fantasy Festival at the Jerusalem International YMCA November 3rd 2012 and on November 6th at the Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv).

Led by violinist Noam Schuss, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra consisted of bowed instruments, theorbo and organ for the program. Conducting from the organ was the JBO’s founder and musical director David Shemer. Soloists were soprano Einat Aronstein and countertenor Alon Harari.  

The settings of the Stabat Mater text constitute some of the most outstanding works of the Italian Baroque. The poem, written possibly by the medieval mystic Jacopone da Todi, was set by such Renaissance composers as Josquin, Palestrina and Browne; the plangent nature of its text, however, beckoned the great Italian composers Vivaldi, A.Scarlatti, D.Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Caldara, Bononcini and Boccherini to plunge into the depths of its sacred- and expressive meaning. The JBO program began with Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) setting of the “Stabat Mater” (1727) for alto, strings and continuo. Possibly the composer’s first sacred work, it was commissioned for the church of Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia, to be performed by the church’s in-house ensemble of two violins, viola and continuo. It is also believed that Vivaldi intended it to be sung by a male alto (and not necessarily a castrato) – probably the highly-paid male alto Filippo Sandri - as ‘falsettists’ were more often employed as altos. So despite the fact that it was commissioned for the all-male forces of the della Pace, it used a text expressing the depth of a mother’s grief. The work is written with great economy – only two keys and some repeated movements (due to time constraints?) and the composer chose to set only 10 of the 20 stanzas. Like many of Vivaldi’s works, the “Stabat Mater” lay hidden for centuries until it was heard again in Siena in 1939. Alon Harari, immersed in the stillness and richly evocative text of the work, held the work’s tension throughout, embellishing sensitively, gently swaying some rhythms with inégal notes, allowing for strategic, gradual dynamic developments as the work built up and ebbed in accordance with the text. In the last stanza, the witness telling of the Mother’s agony at her son’s crucifixion changes role to becoming a person praying in a heart-rending utterance of sensitivity. Here, Harari, violins and viola presented the heart-rending ‘Eia Mater’ text convincingly:
‘O Mother, fount of love, make me to feel the strength of your grief, so that I may mourn with you…’
There were poignant communicative moments between Harari and Noam Schuss. Altogether, the internal instrumental balance and timbral qualities of the ensemble supported the expressive quality of the work.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “Salve Regina”, an ancient hymn to the Virgin – “Hail o Queen, Mother of Mercy”, has many of the stylistic traits of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” – suspensions, chromaticism and its prayerful, contemplative character. Einat Aronstein, her voice bright, fresh in color and highly flexible, gave expression to both the intimate- and dramatic aspects of the work, its excitement and compassion. Aronstein, using a fair amount of vibrato not just as a means of embellishment, addressed the text in detail, coloring such affects as – ‘Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle’ (To thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears).

Composed at the same time as the “Salve Regina”, Pergolesi wrote the “Stabat Mater” in a monastery in Pozzuoli, the Italian spa town on the Bay of Naples, where he spent his last months, ill with tuberculosis. The work became one of the most frequently printed and celebrated works of the 18th century. With the young Pergolesi exhibiting a flair for theatre, his “Stabat Mater” has often been criticized for being too operatic. A setting of the sequence for the ‘Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the work was harmonically ahead of its time, Pergolesi’s use of chromaticism creating a bitter-sweet environment for the piece’s expressive sensibility. Keeping a safe distance from the dangers of flamboyancy and over-sentimentalism, Maestro Shemer’s use of a minimal number of instruments in the ensemble gave priority to the religiosity and intimacy of the work, his tempi allowing for Pergolesi’s dramatic dissonances and the work’s great tenderness and somber beauty to take effect.  From the colliding dissonant seconds opening- and consequently characterizing the work, Aronstein and Harari met on the same wavelength regarding the text and its potential, blending well in duets, embellishing richly and contrasting the work’s fragility with its dramatic moments. Harari’s musical performance is commanding, confident and chiseled, from his palette of ornaments, his superb control, his approach to sacred music and its mystery and introspection as in ‘Tui nati’ (Share with me the agony of your wounded Son who deigned to suffer so much for me) to the drama and tension of the gripping, jagged, short phrases of ‘Fac, ut portem’ (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ, the fate of his Passion and commemorate His wounds’).  Aronstein showed fine control and a sense of delicacy, as in the heart-rending single note touches beginning the ‘Quis est homo’ (Who is he that would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?), then surrendering herself to the pain and tragedy of the ‘Cuius animam’ (Her soul, sighing, anguished and grieving, was pieced by a sword.) The two singers joined in duets that ranged from poignant outpourings to briskly contrapuntal sections, concluding with the Amen, the latter exuberant yet colored with chromatic falling notes predicting Pergolesi’s approaching death.  The JBO instrumentalists’ finespun and sensitive performance – in particular that of violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid and ‘cellist Orit Messer Jacobi – conveyed some important messages: sorrow and anguish with sudden octave jumps (Cuius animam), an answer to the singers’ ‘Quis?’ (Who?) with much intensity, playing scattered notes to depict Christ’s difficulty in breathing as he was losing his life strength (Vidit suum), the strikingly dissonant accompaniment to ‘fac ut tecum lugeam’ (Make my heart with thine accord), sighing motives, etc. David Shemer and the JBO ensemble read past the notes of the written score into the deeper meaning of a work.    

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