Bach’s parody of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater has always been something of a mystery to Bach scholars. Adapted, possibly by Picander, to a German text paraphrasing Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus), and rather oddly termed a motet, it dates from around 1745–1747. Bach’s purpose in making the adaptation remains unclear. Unlike the familiar re-workings of instrumental Italian works made earlier in his life, it seems unlikely that Bach undertook the task in order to examine the structure of a work that was among the most up-to-date pieces in his library.
On face value, one wonders what would have attracted Bach to Pergolesi’s thoroughly galant-inflected setting. As Professor Francesco Delgrado notes in one ofRead more the most perceptive observations in the introductory documentary, there is a certain paradox in Bach taking a work commissioned to replace Alessandro Scarlatti’s old fashioned contrapuntal setting of the text and refashioning it in just such an outmoded Baroque style. His method of doing so was essentially to take Pergolesi’s basically simple three-part harmonies and enrich them by adding contrapuntal writing for the violas. To anyone familiar with the Pergolesi, this will be the most striking feature of Tilge, Höchster, where—in passages such as verse 5 (“Wer wird seine Schuld”) and the exquisitely lovely verse 17 (“Denn du wilst”)—Bach’s counterpoint works to such spellbinding effect as to make Pergolesi’s texture sound positively bare. Other alterations are less obvious, concerning as they do small modifications to allow the new text to fit the music.
The Italian documentary has English subtitles, but there are none for the performance of the motet, and there is no printed insert. Interested readers will find that they can find the German and English texts on the excellent Bach Web site www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach. The studio performance was recorded in the Villa Medici Giulini, Briosco, which makes for handsome surroundings. In the main, the production is admirably straightforward, although I’m unclear as to the significance of the two beautiful young women in period costume wandering around the villa in breaks between sections. Also disconcerting is the disappearance of the uninvolved singer during solo verses, and, especially, the sudden presence of a largish and unneeded female choir (the scoring calls only for soloists) to sing verse 10, and conclude the final Amen.
Notwithstanding such oddities, I would not wish to do other than give high commendation to this DVD. Nancy Argenta and Guillemette Laurens are both in splendid voice, singing with a superb sense of line, natural ease, and spontaneity that complements entirely the dignified and unaffected visual pose adopted. It is a particular pleasure to find Argenta in such radiant voice, for she has been at times disappointing recently (this performance dates from 2000), while Lauren’s lustrous mezzo provides an admirable and beautifully balanced foil. Fasolis, who has demonstrated his Bach credentials on several previous occasions (including an excellent Mass in B Minor), directs with sensitivity and alertness, in the process drawing some finely articulated playing (arguably a little too much so at a few points) from I Barocchisti. The sound is excellent.