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CD Review

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

Septem verba a Christo
(in cruce moriente prolata)

Sophie Karthäuser, soprano
Christophe Dumaux, countertenor
Julien Behr, tenor
Konstantin Wolff, bass
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC902155
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In 1930 conductor and violist Hermann Scherchen discovered the "Seven Words of Christ" – a cycle of seven cantatas each containing two arias. But his discovery – and so the quality of the music – was largely ignored until musicologist Reinhard Fehling found a further two manuscripts in the German abbeys of Kremsmünster and Aldersbach, and convinced publishers Breitkopf & Härtel that the Septem verba was good enough to be prepared and issued in critical edition. The work has been attributed to Pergolesi thanks to even more recent research. And found a performance: a world premiere indeed at the Beaune Festival in July 2012. This was immediately followed by this recording on Harmonia Mundi with four excellent soloists and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under René Jacobs.

In his introductory essay in the helpful and informative booklet that comes with the CD, Jacobs quotes Fehling with words that amply set parameters for listeners to, and potential buyers of, this splendid CD: "The question of the work's authenticity must be separated from that of its value. Or, to put it simply, its value does not depend on whether Pergolesi actually wrote it." Jacobs then goes on to do two things: firmly to agree with the attribution, placing it in the same bracket as the composer's celebrated Stabat Mater; and to make a recording which is as persuasive, unself-conscious and unrhetorical (given the nature of its provenance) as if it were an established major choral work in the Italian High Baroque repertoire: it was written some time between 1730 and Pergolesi's death in 1736.

Jacobs had privileged access to the various editions of the manuscript. He has arrived at a blend that is the most effective combination in the interests of having ornamentation, textual variation and instrumentation support the underlying burden of Pergolesi's rich conception. The authenticity of the attribution of the Septem verba to Pergolesi is strengthened by what almost amounts to a steady stream of diverse discoveries of score parts, copies and versions over many decades – culminating in Fehling's finds in 2009. Stylistic comparisons and amalgamations seem to confirm the authorship beyond all reasonable doubt.

Even without such certainty, there is no doubt on the basis of this recording that here is a work of real beauty and individuality. And one to the quality of which all the participants seem to subscribe wholeheartedly. Each of their performances is distinctive, persuasive and full of personality. The singers' articulation is precise and measured without lacking conviction. They pay particular attention to dynamic: the ensemble has two horns, trumpet and double-bass, yet every syllable is clear and characterful… the ends of Konstantin Wolff's syllables, for instance, are as audible as the open and honest vowels of Sophie Karthäuser are round and full.

Each cantata in the Septem verba a Christo consists of an aria sung by the bass, Konstantin Wolff (except in the second, where it's sung by tenor, Julien Behr) as Christ. In numbers 1, 2, 3 and 7 this is preceded by a short recitative. In each cantata, the second aria is a response of the Soul (anima) to the teachings of the dying Christ. These response arias are sung by countertenor Christophe Dumaux (numbers 1 and 4), soprano Sophie Karthäuser (numbers 2, 3 and 6) and Behr (numbers 5 and 7). This response aria is also preceded by a short recitative in number 3. So the cycle consists of 19 numbers in all. And the verba, the words, from which the entire drama and momentum are derived are short phrases from the Gospels… "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34); "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43); "Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy mother!" (John 19:26-27); "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34); "I thirst" (John 19:28); "It is finished" (John 19:30); "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

The style of the music is passionate, expressive – declamatory – if not operatic. That is to say it's in the tradition of the full flower of the Neapolitan choral Baroque. It differs significantly from the format established by Graupner – chiefly in the slimmer use made (by Pergolesi) of recitative. Those recitatives which there are, though, are sung with great intensity and focus. As indeed are the arias themselves, of course. There is almost a French quality to the concentration and "heat" as the last hours of the Passion are all but recreated. In place of the rhetoric and dialog of drama, Pergolesi emphasizes a colored and intricate elaboration of the doctrinal strengths of the text.

The four singers give performances that re-inforce this conception admirably. They combine sensitivity with ardor, reflection with confidence and technical probity with a spontaneity that adds immediacy and generosity to what's already a memorable and distinct experience. On the one hand, each aria forms part of an intimate dialog between teacher and pupil; between sufferer and faithful. On the other, for the music to have that flair which is necessary if Passion sequences are not to be maudlin or histrionic, there must be some structure. The structure here is the da capo format.

Jacobs embraces the essence of the concentration implied by such an approach: it's confirmatory, it's symmetrical, it's employed by Pergolesi in an unusual way: he sub-divides the B section in such a way that the final reprise assumes the function of an epilog, thus enhancing the dramatic impact; it's modifiable further still to increase tension where felt appropriate. Jacobs also draws attention in his note to the overall symmetrical nature of the Septem verba a Christo across its numbers. He indicates that Pergolesi's plan was thematic, harmonic and one of carefully assigned instrumentation. And indeed, you'll notice that the position at the apex of Cantata number four is a climacteric and musically supported as such.

You'll also find many of the textures produced by imaginative, novel and thoughtful combinations of voice and instruments. You'll be struck by the effects from the strings – in the final tenor aria, "Quid ultra" [tr.19], for instance, where Julien Behr brings lyrical and gentle yet forceful ardor into expressing both the peace of resignation; and the regret at the loss (of Christ). But without a hint of any self-pity or histrionics. Jacobs makes especially potent use of tempi… the final rallentando has pathos, but restraint. It makes a huge impact.

The acoustic (of the Teldex Studio, Berlin) is resonant and pleasing. It fails to interfere with the resounding yet untrammeled communication of the text by these excellent soloists, who are supported so well by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Despite some typographical and formatting errors, the booklet is a good resource for a work that's bound to be unfamiliar to most. If Pergolesi and his world appeal, this is obviously a CD you'll not want to miss. For those interested in musicological discoveries which deserve to enter the repertoire as major pieces – especially from the Baroque – this is also a CD not to overlook. For impeccable yet alert and vivacious music-making with soloists and a chamber orchestra which is at the same time considered and sophisticated in conception and outcome, Jacobs has produced something special yet again. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey