The opening movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was the second track I bought when I first installed iTunes, aged fourteen. The first was Right Here, Right Now. There is possibly no better testament to the great work’s emotional power than my deeming of it as a worthy successor to Fatboy Slim’s magnum opus when first compiling my music collection.
Stabat Mater is a tremendous piece: arguably the most famous setting of the 13th century hymn describing the sorrows of Mary at the cross, it is famed for its evocative depiction of grief and in particular the heart-wrenching ascending suspensions of its opening . The performance of Stabat Mater taking place on the 27th November at St. Peter’s College Chapel should be no different; though in its early stages of rehearsal when I previewed it last Tuesday, it exhibited the potential to be a very engaging production.
The vocal soloists are the strongest facet of this production. Harrison is superb, especially when given the opportunity to show off her commanding high register. The counter-tenor James Potter is also strongest in his middle to higher register where his tone is gentle yet rich, and highly effective in solo sections of light scoring. Potter did have a tendency to be overpowered in heavier scored passages or sections in which both voices sing together – the dissonant suspensions so characteristic of this piece would occasionally suffer due to this imbalance between the vocal parts, and a few noticeably fell short of their full piquancy – but in general the soloists displayed excellent intonation and stylistic awareness.
The quartet and continuo provided solid accompaniment under the clear baton of David Todd and produced a reasonably blended sound with appropriate weightiness where necessary despite their small numbers. A couple of movements were undeniably rough around the edges with certain tempi and a good few notes still a little insecure; but this was, as Johanna assured me, not a polished preview performance but ‘just a rehearsal, not even a dress rehearsal’ – one of the string players told me this was the first time they had met as a group. What has been achieved even at this early stage is impressive, and the music will become more assured with rehearsal.
With purists sure to appreciate the intimate period arrangement, and anyone less familiar with the piece likely to find it a perfect access point to the period’s sacred music, this performance should have something to please everyone. If nothing else, the candle-lit setting of St. Peter’s College Chapel should be spectacular; and the two soloists are certainly vocalists to watch.