Classical CD Reviews

PERGOLESI: Septem verba a Christo – Sophie Karthäuser, sop./ Christophe Dumaux, countertenor/ Julien Behr, tenor/ Konstantin Wolff, bass/ Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/ René Jacobs – Harmonia mundi

A worthy and wonderful new discovery that belongs in every Baroque collection.

Published on August 2, 2013

PERGOLESI: Septem verba a Christo – Sophie Karthäuser, sop./ Christophe Dumaux, countertenor/ Julien Behr, tenor/ Konstantin Wolff, bass/ Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/ René Jacobs – Harmonia mundi HMC 902155, 80:30 *****:

Pergolesi’s The Seven Words Uttered by the Dying Christ on the Cross is unlike almost any other passion text set by any other composer that I have heard. You know what I mean—you see this in a record bin (what am I saying? What record bins?) or perhaps in a magazine or online and your immediately think “somber, pious, serious, even depressing in some cases”. Even the slow and miraculously subtle setting by a composer like Haydn is miles away from what we find here. First of all, it is highly operatic. This should not be surprising from a composer, who, in only 26 brief years of life, practically defined the genre of opera buffa, also composing opera seria, a number of instrumental works, and a good deal of sacred music. There is no overly-somber music here—though most of it is in minor mode, which was not considered as gloomy as later composers were to make it—and the alternating soloists sing with a refreshing ebullience and almost character-defined spirit. The words of the text are made to come alive and are promoted with vocal dexterity and eminently suitable precision of expression.

The piece itself has not been definitely attributed to Pergolesi, though Rene Jacobs has no doubt about its authenticity. If it is indeed by the composer, I think it rivals his more popular Stabat Mater as one of the great works of the age. Essentially it is a series of seven linked cantatas, five having a recitative and each having two arias, representing Christ (who explains the Latin text) and the soul (Bride/Bridegroom). The Da Capo structure allows for a great deal of vocal elaboration, the challenge being to vary the repeats without crossing the boundary into the excessively showy, which all of the singers here succeed at.

This work came to light in 1930 with the discovery of two manuscripts from monasteries, created in the mid-eighteenth century. The conductor Hermann Scherchen was convinced early on of its genuineness, though his comments were largely ignored. It was only after several others appeared, including some in 2009 that established direct ties to the school and time period of Pergolesi in Italy that prompted Reinhard Fehling, after his discovery, to let the piece be published.

I have to concur with Scherchen—this piece is an extraordinary find, superbly crafted and simply gorgeous to hear, worthy of anything the composer has created. A lot of the credit must go to Jacobs’s sympathetic performance, a rarified new addition to the catalog of Italian Baroque music, and highly recommended for music, sound, and performance.

—Steven Ritter




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