BBCSO/Minkowski – Stravinsky’s Pulcinella & Pergolesi’s Stabat mater

Pulcinella – Ballet in One Act with Song
Stabat mater

Marita Solberg (soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
Julien Behr (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Marc Minkowski

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 6 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Marc Minkowski. Photograph: Lillian Birnbaum / DGMarc Minkowski reversed the original programme order so that the worldly content of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” preceded the devotional material of Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater”.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was on top form. “Pulcinella” (played complete), originally thought to be based on unpublished songs and keyboard pieces by Pergolesi – but since proved to be mainly by other 18th-century Italian composers – is very much a display piece for the thirty-three players required for this ballet score. After the ‘Overture’, here taken at a fairly broad tempo, the ‘Serenata’ introduced us to the French tenor Julien Behr, who immediately made a striking impression. With great beauty of tone he expressively conjured up vistas of sylvan charm, and in this movement – as throughout the concert – there was some wonderfully expressive playing from oboist Richard Simpson. In the four orchestral numbers that followed – by turns nimble, playful, delicate, and cheeky – there was marvellous playing from horn players Martin Owen and Christopher Larkin (what a rustic sound they produced!); and also from Gareth Bimson on trumpet, Helen Vollam on trombone, and the whole wind department. All through this reading of “Pulcinella” the alert response of the players to each other was quite special, with Minkowski gracefully guiding them through the many changing moods. One could cite, for example, the manner in which the strings accompanied the singers in the affecting ‘Sento dire’, where the refined and clear tones of Marita Solberg and the very secure and sonorous ones of Matthew Rose blended beautifully with Behr. Overall, a combination of Italianate style and virtuosity characterised the narrative, the singers providing a beautiful vocal commentary.

The performance of Pergolesi’s “Stabat mater” was perhaps even more remarkable, with Nathalie Stutzmann’s dark timbre the perfect foil to Solberg.

The opening setting of the ‘Stabat mater’ text was taken very quietly, and it set the dolorous mood with striking emphases on the lower strings. And in ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’ the level of emotion was screwed tighter, the singers blending perfectly together and responding to the text with acute sensitivity. Minkowski shaped the orchestral accompaniment to ‘Quis est homo qui non fleret’ with a degree of tenderness perfectly attuned to the ladies’ vivid evocation of the scene at the foot of the cross; and the dying phrases from the orchestra at the close of ‘Vidit suum’ (as Christ’s spirit passed away) was also very moving. In the solo aria ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’, where arguably the deepest emotions in the work are expressed, Minkowski made the most of the stabbing figures in the violins and lower strings, and Stutzmann sang with great depth of feeling, and with heightened gravitas at the close. The final duet ‘Quando corpus morietur’ again had Solberg and Stutzmann blending together in sublime fashion, whilst the organist (Malcolm Hicks), together with divided strings and double basses, underscored the hope of eventual union with Christ in paradise. This most devotional performance came to a close with the brief ‘Amen’, which finally resolved all the emotional tensions that had preceded it.

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