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American Record Guide (07-08/2016)

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The German text is in the same meter and rhyme scheme as the Latin Stabat Mater. Pergolesi’s valedictory masterpiece was written in 1736. By the 1740s manuscript copies of it were circulating in northern Europe. Bach’s adaptation probably dates from 1745 to 1747, but the occasion for it is not known. The work was only discovered in 1946. Bach’s adaptation remains very close to the original in most respects. He modifies the string writing mainly by giving the viola a more independent part, where in Pergolesi that instrument tends mostly to double the bass.

There are occasional modifications of the voice parts, sometimes to accom-modate the prosody of the German text, but Bach also produces shapely lines in places where the original has repeated longer notes. Bach reverses the order of the second and third movements from the end, presumably to suit the expressive character of the German text, and he repeats the final minor-key “Amen” in the major. The piece can be sung by two solo voices, as it is here, though I have heard performances that use a small chorus of treble voices for some movements. Here the voices of soprano Celine Scheen and countertenor Damien Guillon (who also directs the performance) blend remarkably well. They are both notable for purity and refinement of tone and outstanding vocal control.

In general, the recorded sound is warm and clear. The recording was made at the Abbaye aux Dames in Saintes, France. There is a rich reverberation that is most evident at the ends of movements. The gentle lingering of the sound makes the upward-resolving appoggiaturas in the 11th movement (‘Offne Lippen’) exceptionally poignant. The sound does not seem uncomfortably close, but in the extended introduction to the first movement the rhythmic sniffing of the string players is quietly audible.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus (R 608), a setting of Vulgate Psalm 126 for alto solo, strings, and continuo, probably for Vespers, comes early in his output, most likely intended for one of the more vocally gifted young ladies  at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. Program annotator Stefano Russomanno points out that the setting seems to be suffused with the character of an instrumental concerto. Sometimes the voice part suggests virtuoso violin writing, and Guillon handles the vocal acrobatics impressively. There is some delicious word painting, as in III, where upward rushing scales accompany the word “surgite” (rise up), and the music suddenly turns slower and more sustained at the word “sederitis” (take rest). The doxology is unusually expansive: spread over three movements, with the first of the three taking nearly five minutes. Damien Guillon is one of the top countertenors currently active, with an impressive record of concert and operatic performances as well as recordings. He has worked withmany of today’s leading exponents of early music. He founded the instrumental ensemble Le Banquet Céleste in 2009, and his reputation as a music director continues to grow.



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