BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra|Martyn Brabbins – Pergolesi’s Stabat mater; Stravinsky’s Pulcinella

Stabat mater, P.77

Pulcinella – ballet in one act with song [1919-20, rev. 1965]

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Simon Shibambu (bass-baritone)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 6 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC Proms in 2021 have deviated quite a bit from the earlier published Proms Guide due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Tonight is no exception, as Martyn Brabbins stepped in, at short notice, for Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro. The concert is one of many this season marking the 50th-anniversary of Stravinsky’s death. Here, the complete ballet Pulcinella is paired with Stravinsky’s muse for the ballet: Pergolesi, and his Stabat mater, composed in 1736 in the final weeks of his life. Research has since shown that the unpublished songs and keyboard pieces that Stravinsky set to music are mostly by other composers contemporary to Pergolesi, however this doesn’t detract from the quasi-transcriptions that the composer made.

Little is known about what is likely to be Pergolesi’s final composition. It was probably written at the Franciscan monastery at Pozzuoli to where the composer retired early in 1736 in expectation of his death, almost certainly from tuberculosis. Popular from the start, the work has been arranged for choir and soloists (the choir replacing some of the duets) by Joseph Eybler – a contemporary of Mozart, and this version has become part of the standard choral repertoire. Tonight, we heard the original for soprano and alto soloists (here the alto part sung by countertenor Tim Mead) with string orchestra and continuo.

Period styling informed the strings, playing without vibrato, that was convincingly authentic sounding despite the use of modern instruments. The soloists, well matched in timbre and balance, and standing a fair distance apart at either side of the stage, kept a keen eye on one another, ensuring togetherness, even in the sprightlier numbers – such as the Fac ut ardeat cor meum fugal duet. The final movement, plaintive and yearning followed by a defiantly boisterous fugal ‘Amen’ finds the composer entreating death to come take him, now that his work is complete.

Never doubting David Gutman’s note in the programme confirming that the complete score version of Pulcinella had been played narrowly more times at the Proms than the 1922 ‘suite’ derived from the ballet, it seems, in wider concert circles, the latter is an easier sell; lasting around 20 minutes – about half the duration of the complete score. Nevertheless, it was good to hear the work as originally envisaged by the composer, albeit in the 1965 revision.

This was a considered performance, slightly longer than usual but refreshing in its clarity, where each instrument was easily distinguishable. Equally commendable is the versatility of the strings, who sounded like a different group to that heard in the first half.

First-half soprano, Carolyn Sampson, made a welcome return and was joined by tenor Benjamin Hulett and South African bass-baritone Simon Shibambu. In the more operatic movements, notably the duet Ncè sta quaccuna pò, Sampson’s acting abilities shone alongside her musicality. Never to be outdone, Shibambu’s gravelly bass solo Con queste paroline was impressive while Hulett’s Una te fallan zemprecce was just bonkers – how soloist and orchestra didn’t part company at the speed taken is remarkable and, at the same time, exhilarating.

Orchestral gems were similarly frequent; the Tarantella was sprightly and impeccably controlled; the vivo at the end of the Gavotta con due variazioni showcased Simon Johnson’s trombone and the visual, as well as musical talents of guest principal double bass player Nikita Naumov, and overarching all, this was an orchestra clearly happy to be allowed to perform to a welcoming live audience once more. Super-sub Martyn Brabbins masterly brought the whole together as if he were always to conduct the concert. The exuberant finale – marked ‘very fast’ – was just that, bringing the Prom to a riotous conclusion.

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