This Friday harmonia mundi will release its latest recording of the British early music ensemble La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates. The principal soloist is countertenor Tim Mead, who is featured in two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach composed for solo alto, the BWV 54 Widerstehe doch der Sünde (pray resist all sin) and the BWV 170 Vergnügte Ruh! beliebte Seelenlust! (contented rest, beloved heart’s desire). These two cantatas frame a performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn, in which Mead is joined by soprano Lucy Crowe. (Crowe was the featured soloist on the 2013 recording by La Nuova Musica of settings of the “Dixit Dominus” Psalm by Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel. As may be expected, Amazon.com is already taking pre-orders for the new release.
The two cantatas represent two different periods from Bach’s life. BWV 54 was composed in 1714, after he resumed his position as a court musician in the chapel of Ernest Augustus I, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Bach had originally been hired by the Duke’s father, Johann Ernst III; but one of the first things the son did was assign him the higher position of Konzertmeister, perhaps to keep him from wandering off again in search of better employment. Along with the promotion came the duty to perform a cantata monthly. One may thus say that this was when Bach began to hone his skills as a cantata composer, skills that he would exercise far more intensely after becoming the Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723. Composed in 1726, BWV 170 dates from that prodigiously productive period. In spite of the temporal gulf between them, through the use of only a solo voice, both cantatas share a rhetoric of intimacy that tends to elude the larger-scale settings of sacred music. Mead clearly knew how to capture that rhetoric, and Bates just as clearly shares that approach in leading the interplay of the vocal line with his instrumentalists.
Intimacy is also of the essence in the Pergolesi performance. As I have previously observed, the words, taken on their own, amount to “a monument to pietistic tedium.” It is hard to imagine that their author was not using the trochaic tetrameter rhythm (the same rhythm used in the “Dies Irae” hymn) to depict the nails being driven into the Cross. Pergolesi had the good sense not to dwell on that effect, going instead for the poignancy of Mary bearing witness to the Crucifixion. Furthermore, he managed to capture this intense emotional state through a variety of different tempi, almost as if the music has set about to depict Mary’s distressed state by having her mind dart from one thought to another highly contrasting one. It would not be unfair to say that Pergolesi identified a poetry in these words that had eluded the author of the text!
Here again, the impact of the poetic impact of the music depends heavily on the expressiveness of the soloists. After all, they are the ones responsible for raising those words above the tedium of the text itself. Both Mead and Crowe achieve this goal impressively and can realize their expressiveness not only through solo work but also through the many passages in which Pergolesi entwines their two voices. Bates then adds the finishing touches, not only through balancing his instruments but also with a keen sense of finding the right tempo for each of the twelve sections into which Pergolesi divided the text.
Taken as a whole, this album makes an excellent case for how much expressiveness could be be achieved in eighteenth century sacred music through the understated use of limited resources.