Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata

Media Review / Comparison


2014-02-18 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-06-14 — Removed links to expired YouTube videos, addendum appended
2014-11-10 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-18 — Brushed up for better readability


Pergolesi: Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata, Jacobs, CD cover
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (?)
: Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata

René Jacobs, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Sophie Karthäuser, Christophe Dumaux, Julien Behr, Konstantin Wolff

harmonia mundi HMC 902155 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2013

Pergolesi: Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata, Jacobs, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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What got me into Giovanni Battista Pergolesi [?] (1710 – 1736) this time:

I don’t want or mean to pretend that I generated all my comments on the above CD just from listening to that recording. Let me give some extra context here:

A Radio Comparison …

A recent issue of “La tribune des critiques de disques” on France Musique pointed me to a “white spot” in my CD collection: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater dolorosa”. I have a recording of this on LP (Mirella Freni, Teresa Berganza, I Solisti dell’Orchestra “Scarlatti” Napoli under the direction of Ettore Gracis) that I haven’t heard in decades. In that recent radio comparison, six versions were compared, two more were mentioned:

… and its Outcome

Among these recordings, the first and the last one were not really part of the comparison. The last one was mentioned as “older reference recording”, along with several others. The “finalists” in the comparison were Leshneva/Jaroussky/Fasolis and Bonney/Scholl/Rousset, the latter ended up being the winner recording.

An Alternative Option, with René Jacobs

I did not jump to order, but first checked with a friend who I knew to like Julia Lezhneva as her top favorite among the recent, young sopranos. I also knew she doesn’t like Jaroussky. Turns out she also doesn’t like Andreas Scholl. But instead of confirming the result of that comparison, she pointed me to a concert / YouTube recording of Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater dolorosa” (no longer available, unfortunately) with René Jacobs, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Sophie Karthäuser, and Christophe Dumaux. Her personal highlights in that performance are the direction and the countertenor.

Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata

YouTube Video Preview

I don’t want to comment on or reiterate the above comparison. I did carefully listen to the above “Stabat mater dolorosa” on YouTube, but don’t want to dwell on this, other than saying that in essence it confirmed or anticipated my findings for “Septem verba”, the real topic of this posting. This recording I ran into through a follow-up to the above YouTube video of the “Stabat mater dolorosa”. It’s a video recording of “Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata” (no longer available, unfortunately) from the same concert as the “Stabat mater dolorosa” just referred to. It covers a concert during the Festival de Beaune, France, in 2012.

Release on CD

The “Septem verba” has in the meantime been released on CD, in a setting almost identical to the concert. I listened through both YouTube videos numerous times before finally taking delivery of the above CD. As stated, I won’t elaborate on the “Stabat mater dolorosa” much further in this posting, though I should note that my findings on both Sophie Karthäuser and Christophe Dumaux, as well as on René Jacobs’ direction are based on observations first made with the “Stabat mater dolorosa”, and fully confirmed in the video recording of “Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata”.

Some of this may not be obvious from the CD. One reason for mentioning all of the above is that from the above CD alone I would definitely not have reached all of the conclusions below. The concert video provided valuable additional insights. A detailed discussion on the complementary nature of CDs vs. live concert recordings is found in my post “CD / Studio vs. Live Recordings / Concerts”.

As a complete  video recording is (was) available, I don’t want to waste space here describing this music, other than saying that it is beautiful, intense, both expressive and contemplative music — and an interpretation that is well worth listening to!

The Rediscovery of the Composition:

Before dwelling on the the current recording, first a short note on the composition, as this is subject to some controversy. The composition has been known for decades, from various sources, such as

  • an incomplete manuscript from the Bavarian State Library (registered 1882)
  • a handwritten, complete set of voices, created 1760 in the monastery of Metten
  • another set of voices in manuscript, located in the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich in the 1950’s
  • a third set of voices found in 2009 in the monastery of Kremsmünster, Austria

All these sources lack a clear authorship. The last source led to a dissertation by the musicologist Reinhard Fehling who concluded that it must be an early composition by Pergolesi, and René Jacobs concurs with this attribution. However, this remains somewhat controversial (partly also because we don’t know of any similar works by this composer). In any case, it is beautiful music, whoever its composer.

Structure

The composition consists of seven “cantatas”, each starting with the recitation of one of Christ’s seven last words before dying on the cross, according to the bible. This recitation (Jesus, i.e., the bass) is followed by two arias (all essentially in da Capo form, i.e., A-B-A). Five of the arias are preceded by a recitativo. The score asks for four soloists (soprano, alto/altus, tenor, bass, no choir), the assignment of the arias to the various voices is not the same in all manuscripts. The first aria in all but one cantatas is also sung by the bass. The one exception is the second cantata, where the first aria is sung by the tenor. The CD version and the performance in the concert are essentially equivalent, except that

  • some of the initial recitations differ between the concert and the CD. Most notably the first one, which in the concert is essentially on a single tone, and
  • the second recitation in the concert is with the tenor. On the CD, all seven recitations are sung by the bass (the second one is the only cantata where the first aria is sung by the tenor, so having him sing the recitation as well saved the bass from stepping onto the podium just for that recitation).

In the third cantata, Jacobs decided to omit the da Capo for the first aria. An extensive discussion on the structure of the composition is found in the liner notes. According to the liner notes, the CD recording was made a few days after the composition was presented at the Festival de Beaune, 2012.

Instrumentation

One interesting feature with this composition is the instrumentation: 3 + 3 violins, 2 violas (both also as soloists), 2 celli (1 solo), double bass, organ and harpsichord (alternating), 2 horns (1 solo), trumpet (solo), harp (solo) and lute. Especially the prominence of the two solo violas, the horns and the harp is rather unusual.

Interpretation

As mentioned, most of the observations originated from watching the video recording (concert at the Festival de Beaune, 2012). The time stamps below are times into that video (total duration: 1h21’18”). The table further down lists the starting times of the various segments / CD tracks within the YouTube video.

René Jacobs, Direction

First of all: I had a lot of pleasure viewing these videos (both the “Septem verba” as well as the “Stabat mater”). One aspect that I personally found rather irritating: René Jacobs’ direction (just visually) feels rather unclear, if not often disconcerting (particularly his ..3-1..3-1.. or …4-1…4-1… beating style, combined with him beating up instead of down, which I find better in general). Of course, what counts is the outcome. However, I felt that indeed some tempo transitions were slightly insecure in the orchestra, if not even momentarily chaotic. The composition contains some pretty critical / difficult transitions, though! I can imagine that the soloists in the Stabat Mater were not unhappy about the fact that they had the direction in their back!

This is nothing dramatic, overall. Still, things indeed occasionally go astray in the concert (too often to be “normal live incidents / mishaps”. For the CD, such incidents would be corrected, of course. In fact, none of the following incidents show up on the CD):

  • at around 43’30”, in the aria for the countertenor “Afflicte, derelicte” (ca. 2’20” into track 12), there’s chaos in the orchestra for a moment, after the transition to a faster tempo.
  • around 1h01’15”, towards the end of the bass-aria “Huc advolate mortales” (ca. 5’02” into track 15), there’s a short cadenza in the continuo that is rhythmically unclear
  • the start of the soprano aria “Sic consummasti omnia”, at 1h02’44” (start of track 16 on the CD) is pretty chaotic in the orchestra, and after the cadenza in the same aria, at 1h05’54”, there are again noticeable coordination issues.

Vocal Soloists

Bass / Jesus — Konstantin Wolff

The most prominent voice in this composition is the bass (Jesus), singing all seven recitations (except for one in the concert), six arias and three recitativi. In this role, Konstantin Wolff was a the first of as et of very nice experiences with this recording! An excellent, well-sounding, soft, round voice, well-balanced, equilibrated, yet unpretentious, and not just another Mertens or Prégardien (at last), nor somebody who turns this into an opera. It’s the perfect singer for this role, lyrical, calm, solemn, yet flexible, with enough agility for the arias. I really like this voice: one of the highlights in this recording!

Tenor — Julien Behr

The tenor role includes three arias and one recitativo. Julien Behr was a new voice to me. I’m just as much positively surprised by this singer! An excellent voice, shining, with a brilliant timbre, a “ping” / radiance that reminds me of Fritz Wunderlich (though I think more artful than Wunderlich), again well-balanced, flexible, with excellent projection, even in the sotto voce (the latter is impressive in the very last aria “Quid ultra peto vivere” — reminds me of the strong effect that the late Werner Hollweg achieved in Zurich around 1980 when he sung an entire aria sotto voce in Monteverdi’s “Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria” under Nikolaus Harnoncourt). Also, Julien Behr uses the power of his voice wisely, doesn’t try to try pushing his timbre for the mere effect, but uses its brilliance to highlight key notes and passages.

Vocal Hiccup

In the concert / video, he apparently wasn’t in top form. Initially, this is barely noticeable, except maybe that he seems to be a little careful not to stress his voice. But this would not be noticed by the average listener. In the concert, after the bass aria “In tuum, Pater, gremium”, there is a silence, followed by a set of soft, sombre chords on the organ & continuo, indicating Christ’s death, then followed by a short, but dramatic earthquake (terremoto). In that initial silence and the soft chords, one can hear violent coughing. I first blamed this on the audience (which might have thought of this as a tuning break).

In the aftermath I realized that it must have been Julien Behr trying to free his throat! With partial success, as it turns out, as his voice briefly fails completely in the final aria (one of the risks of a live concert recording!). Hhowever, he amazingly seems to recover quickly, finishing the piece with again brilliant voice / timbre, almost as if nothing had happened — chapeau! Excellent singer — brilliant voice!

Altus — Christophe Dumaux

The alto voice is sung by a countertenor, Christophe Dumaux. That role features two arias. Two arias only, I should say. Among the singers, this is the third, very positive surprise in this recording. To a degree that makes one wish one would hear more of that voice! Unfortunately, the alternative opportunity to hear and see this countertenor in a bigger role in Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater dolorosa” (played in the same concert as the “Septem verba”, at the Festival de Beaune in 2012) is no longer available. I could not name any singers to compare this one with. Among the counter tenors I know, this voice,i.e., its particular timbre, is very unique.

Comparing to Others

Maybe the best way to describe it is as being the opposite of voices such as Philippe Jaroussky or Andreas Scholl. It’s not one of these ultra-smooth, often almost bodyless voices, but a slightly “grainy” timbre, with body, “substance” and excellent projection. Clearly, it’s not a pushed / high tenor voice, but definitely an altus. It’s a voice less suited to incorporate women in baroque operas, but rather for male altus roles. That’s not a disadvantage, just a difference (as much as a lyrical voice differs from a dramatic one).

The voice is full, balanced, flexible, characterful, expressive. It retains its unique character over the entire dynamic and tonal range. Dumaux uses his voice very wisely and with diligence. He doesn’t try pushing it, nor does he need to. This kind of voice is in little danger of drowning among other voices, even in the p range, given its unique timbre. A very special, excellent voice, and definitely a very big highlight of this recording!

Soprano — Sophie Karthäuser

Finally, the soprano part, sung by Sophie Karthäuser is given three arias and one recitativo. Unfortunately, this voice doesn’t match up to the level of the others. The voice “material” per se isn’t that bad: she has volume, the timbre is fine, mostly (from recordings it’s hard to judge how well her voice projects), but I noted that her vibrato seemed a bit excessive, and I started watching her more closely.

At one point (in the “Stabat mater”) I observed that at times her chin was wagging along with the vibrato. That to me is simply “forbidden”, or an indication that something is “wrong”. In my opinion it points towards a vibrato that is “produced” by modulating the voice, rather than being the result of applying the right tension and pressure to a flexible diaphragm. Aging bass voices are the most likely to fall into the trap of a “produced” vibrato. Just check the Wotans in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, and you are likely to see examples. Maybe my observation also explains why the vibrato often feels too strong? To me, a good vibrato should just “happen”. With the right “handling” of the diaphragm, also the frequency and strength of a vibrato should feel “natural”.

Limitations

This may be regarded a minor issue. However, more serious problems arise in “Septem verba”, where at 28’30”, and even more so starting around 29’30”. In the aria “Quod iubes, magne Domine” (0’35” and 1’35” into the track), Karthäuser is severely lagging behind with the coloratura. In the da capo part (ca. 32’00” and 33’00”), she is manages slightly better, but only just about. Clearly, she is singing at her limits. I thought that maybe the tempo in the concert was faster than expected (by her). But in the CD recording, that aria is at virtually the same tempo (see the table below) — and she manages more or less OK. Once one has seen the video, though, one can still sense that she doesn’t have much reserves in the coloraturas.

Apart from these technical limitations, her articulation occasionally seems too dramatic, a bit hard, maybe rigid. The music would have profited from a little more softness, more expressivity / emotion and phrasing, I think. The loud, dramatic peak notes in the aria “Quod iubes, magne Domine” may sound like attempts to make the audience forget about the shortcomings in the coloraturas. Overall, this is one of the weakest parts of this interpretation.

Orchestra / Ensemble — Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

The orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, playing entirely on period instruments (gut strings, baroque bows) or replicas. I find their playing simply excellent, the sound warm and very well balanced (not just the result of good sound management in the recording!). I could not point to any really weak parts in this ensemble. It is a joy to watch all these musicians, and to hear the sound of their instruments! Quite obviously, also the camera team liked the enthusiasm with which the first cellist, Kathrin Sutor, plays her virtuosic part and vividly interacts with the other members of the ensemble!

I also particularly like the sound of the harp, and the clean and well-sounding horn parts. In the video, my only minor irritation (as a former violinist) is with the way in which the second violist holds her bow (makes her appear partly out-of-sync). But what counts is the audible result, and I can’t criticize that. The few times when there appears to be a lack of coordination in the live recording, this may not be a limitation with the ensemble, but rather in the direction, see above.

Conclusion

I can only recommend this recording! The video is a real pleasure to watch, but the CD corrects all of the shortcomings of the live performance.

Timing Table

As mentioned above, I have compiled a table with a track listing for the CD. The track duration (in seconds) is given in the last column. I also list the times for the start of each CD track within the video, as well as the duration of the equivalent segments in the live performance (again in seconds). Green color indicates faster / shorter execution, blue slower / longer. The table indicates that there were no major tempo differences between concert and CD recording, even though the concert appears to be gradually faster, overall (not enough to explain the occasional coordination issues, I think).

Pergolesi: Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata, Jacobs, timing table


Addendum (2014-06-14):

I recently ran into a second YouTube recording of that same composition, this time with Nathalie Stutzmann directing the ensemble Orfeo 55 (period instruments), with Emöke Baráth and Pierre Jaroussky (a live recording from the Château de Fontainebleau, France, April 2014).

At this point, I don’t really want to discuss this recording (as I’m focusing on recordings that are available on CD). But I still would like to mention it, as it can serve as illustration / justification of my criticism of Sophie Karthäuser‘s performance in the recordings mentioned above. Emöke Baráth sings with limited, natural vibrato, excellent articulation and phrasing, very good (yet inconspicuous) diction. Her voice is wonderfully flexible and covers a very wide dynamic range, never losing projection, even in the softest pianissimo. She never appears to be even close to any limits. Her voice has a beautiful color and the necessary brilliance (“ping”). A voice to watch out for in the coming years! Too bad the YouTube recordings with René Jacobs mentioned above are no longer available for a direct comparison!



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