Settings of the Stabat Mater by Penderecki, John Browne, Palestrina and Domenico Scarlatti
David Miller (theorbo)
David Ponsford (organ)
Reviewed by: Robert Hugill
Reviewed: 29 January, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Creating satisfying programmes of unaccompanied sacred music can be rather tricky. In this rare visit to London, Jeffrey Skidmore, and his Birmingham-based choir Ex Cathedra, did so by performing four contrasting settings of the “Stabat Mater”.
Besides enabling the choir to include work by composers from different eras, the programme displayed Ex Cathedra in a variety of vocal configurations. The programme opened with Penderecki’s 1962 setting for three choirs, which he later included in his “St Luke Passion”. Then came John Browne’s six-part, early Tudor setting from the Eton Choir Book. The first half ended with Palestrina’s version for three choirs, and in the second we moved to the 18th-century with Domenico Scarlatti’s 10-part setting with continuo; a luxuriant work with four soprano parts.
Penderecki’s Stabat mater, with fragmented textures, chromaticism and subdivisions of individual parts, was a brave choice to open the concert. The works starts with plainchant and then grows from a bass drone as Penderecki applies fragments of the plainchant to the texture, relishing a lyrical dissonance. The choir captured the piece’s quiet intensity but at times its members sounded a little tentative and the big, dissonant outbursts lacked bravura. Nevertheless, the performance was a fine achievement.
By contrast, Browne’s setting belongs to the Tudor tradition of high, florid works, the composer relishing the opportunities that six voices afforded him through various combinations that alternate with the full consort. Ex Cathedra sang with purity and clarity of line, something true for all the works in the programme, making a lovely clean sound. The musicians also brought to the Browne a remarkable robustness at the work’s big moments. But I am afraid that I wanted more; the sound had an English, Anglican coolness. In both the Browne (and the Palestrina) I wanted more passion, more incense. The florid passages of the Browne flowed well and the soloists were commendable, but the melismatic sections lacked a sense of rapture; dare I say it, a sense of spiritual commitment.
This was the problem that Jeffrey Skidmore had set himself by programming these works. The pain and intensity of the “Stabat Mater” text is Roman Catholic in feeling and the cool, well modulated beauty of Ex Cathedra’s performances was not quite enough.
In Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s setting, the three choirs toss the text between themselves, Palestrina reserving the use of combined choirs for moments of special intensity. Unfortunately the choirs were not spaced apart, so we did not get the spatial effects that Palestrina probably had in mind. His setting is among the first to set all 20 verses of the poem. As a singer myself I suspect that Palestrina’s music can sometimes seem more interesting to the performer than to the audience. Here Ex Cathedra made a beautiful, well-modulated sound, creating a rich, smooth volume of noise in the concerted passages. But as in the Browne, I wanted more, perhaps something more Italianate in sound and style. Italian colleagues have commented that they find the English style of singing Palestrina too cool.
The work that succeeded best was Domenico Scarlatti’s lovely 10-part version. Perhaps because this is a rather galant work, its four soprano parts creating a light and airy feel, the intensity is set lower. Ex Cathedra responded to the piece’s lyrical charms and produced a charming performance. Scarlatti artfully divided the verses into a series of contrasting movements, each with their own style so that we had contrasting sections with florid solos, haunting suspensions, lightly melodic canons and exciting vigour. Perhaps the words sometimes got lost, but the choir never lost its beauty of tone. The longest work of the evening, Scarlatti’s “Stabat Mater” won me over with its airy charm and the lyrical beauty of the performance itself.
The audience responded very generously. For an encore, Gorecki’s “Totus Tuus”, written in 1987 for Pope John Paul’s visit to Poland. A short, hauntingly beautiful work with mesmeric repetitions; in this piece Ex Cathedra approached the fervour that I had found missing elsewhere.