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Pietà


Wednesday, 28 November – Radio Concert Hall
C. Ph. E. Bach: Symphony nr. 5 in B minor (fragment)
C. W. Gluck: Dance of the furies and of the blessed spirits, from Orpheus and Eurydice
W. A. Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D major, KV 297 – Paris
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: STABAT MATER
Conductor: Neil Thomson, Radio Chamber Orchestra; Radio Academic Choir, conductor: Dan Mihai Goia
Irina Săndulescu-Bălan (soprano), Maria Jinga (mezzosoprano)

The reasons why this concert was not to be missed by music lovers were the following: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – a composition so rarely sung in Romania, the Radio Chamber Orchestra – whose performances are as infrequent as good, the presence of a British conductor, Neil Thomson – seeming to justify even more the concert programme, and, at last, the programme itself.

Meeting Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach is an event in itself. Gluck, very beautiful, The Dance of the Furies, composed in 1774, is the reform of Parisian music, which will eliminate from the repertoire Rameau himself (Les Indes galantes sees its last representation in 1773, then, it is forgotten for nearly 200 years). Both works were played last night with a precision and an elegance that promised much for what was to follow. Neil Thomson seems to be an adept of musical baroque reconstruction, and the great romantic respiration is rejected from the very beginning. This is how things are played nowadays and this is good, despite the fact that the discography inheritance of the classic lovers of the ’50 – ’70, and I am talking mainly about Herbert von Karajan, is becoming obsolete.

Mozart’s „Paris” symphony was more than perfect as a continuation. Here, Mozart was influenced by Gluck, whom he met when he was 12 and with whom he shared the same musical vision, but not the same putting in opera of the ideas. The two became friends in that Vienna that was sublimating in arts the frights of the Ottoman siege (by ordering The Abduction from the Seraglio) and where, after Gluck’s death, young Wolfgang takes his place as a composer of the Austrian Imperial court. And, in their art, he nearly makes Gluck forgotten. Symphony Nr. 31, composed in Paris, of an elegance never met before, in 1778, has kept its charm through the Radio Chamber Orchestra, that played it impeccably. It really made me think about a comparison, on equal terms, to the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra(composed in the same period – 1779), that I saw in Enescu 2011, with Wiener Philharmoniker and Franz Welser-Möst. In other words, it was a great interpretation, with the tempo of the first part almost hurried, but without losing its grace, with the second part precise and finished with the elegance of an allegro where, besides the pure sound of the strings, I noticed, once more, that this was the first use of a clarinet in a Mozart symphony. And when one thinks that, in those times, this piece was considered to be one that needed a big sized orchestra, then we have a more clear image of Mozart’s ability to compose, spontaneously, music that his contemporaries thought of as „complicated„. Anyway, this was the place where Neil Thomson seemed to be most at ease, watching carefully not to lose any tempo, not to lengthen a sound purposelessly, but to feverishly balance the orchestra… To cut a long story short, he made it!

But I had waited for all this beauty only to see it end as quickly as possible. No matter how great and how well played all these pieces were, the idea that I was going to listen to Pergolesi’s masterpiece live made me push the rest of the concert in a corner, maybe I will remember more about it some other time, but not now, not here, not after this piece of sacred music.

Finis Laus Deo

In communist Romania, the sacred music concerts became, as years went by, extreme rarity, almost always having an air of enclave. For those in the hall, it was almost impossible not to think about the belief of the first Christians, of Sienkiewicz`s Quo vadis… It is hard to calculate how much we have lost, in terms of education, because of this lack, but I dare say that, without church music, we are significantly incomplete. On the other hand, the nationalist component of the Romanian communism prevents, even today, the presentation of this type of music on a larger scale, because of a whispered threat of orthodox anathema: “And, say, Rachmaninoff`s Vespers are not good enough? You listen to those first …”.

And yet, Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is the most famous and the most popular work of sacred music after Mozart`s Requiem, which, again, is too rarely sung in our concert halls. But religious hymns dedicated to Virgin Mary exist both in orthodox and catholic cults, and they are sung outside regular services, only for the important celebrations for her, ever since the VIth century A.D. In our case, Stabat Mater dolorosa (this is the complete name, in order to differentiate it from another hymn, with very similar name, Stabat Mater pietosa) accompanies the mass on August 15th for the Virgin Mary in the catholic world. The canonical text was written in the XIIIth century by Pope Innocent III and by the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi. In other words, all musical compositions, be it Palestrina`s, Pergolesi`s, Dvořák`s, Rossini`s, Haydn`s or Vivaldi`s, contain exactly the same lyrics, in Latin…

Stabat Mater dolorosa/ Juxta Crucem lacrimosa/ Dum pendebat Filius…

This is the musical equivalent of the famous theme in plastic arts called Pietà, replicated over and over again by the Christian iconography since the Byzantines and up to our days. The image of the Virgin Mary weeping her Son just after Crucifixion is the universal symbol for pain.

 Pieta Icon

And no doubt this is a symbol thousands years old, always current, unfortunately valid even today, in the life of our fellow brothers. It is worth mentioning here a more than clarifying episode.

The press photo designated as the best for 2012 (World Press Photo prize) – an image that is worth, indeed, 1000 words. Fatima al-Qaws cradles her son, Zayed (18 years old), who seems dead after having inhaled toxic gas spread over the demonstrants of the “Arab spring” in Yemen. The young man was in a coma for two days and, eventually, was saved. The author of the photo is a Spanish journalist, Samuel Aranda.

Aranda of Spain has won World Press Photo of the Year 2011 with this picture of woman holding wounded relative during protests against president Saleh in Sanaa

Does religion matter? Confronted with this image, I think the answer is no, as long as we do not abdicate human condition.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736) is one of the most important composers of the pre-classical period, great adversary of Rameau who has been recently reinvented in Paris and in Iași, prolific opera composer, despite the fact that he left our world when only 26, killed by tuberculosis. Stabat Mater is his last masterpiece, the greatest, a musical will with the same emotional value as Mozart’s Requiem or Ceaikovsky’s Pathetique. After the long series of  „wordly„ successes in opera buffa (La serva padrona), the agony of his last months was spent in the monastery of Capuchin friars in Pozzuoli, Italia – Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori di San Luigi al Palazzo.

If you remember the last words of Violetta Valéry, in La Traviata (Cessarono/ Gli spasmi del dolore./ In me rinasce m’agita/ Insolito vigore! Ah! io ritorno a vivere/ Oh gioia! ), that final minute of the opera, with the most luminous and, at the same time, the most tragic music Verdi ever composed, well, this minute is the reality lived by Pergolesi in his last three months of life. And these three months are concentrated in the music of his final work, that lasts a little more than half and hour. Thirty minutes where Mozart has an equal. Half an hour at the end of which the one who listens, with his soul accompanied by knowledge, to this music so simple (only strings), so beautiful, so easy to memorize, but, at the same time, so devastating, well, the one who listens will never be the same person. Because if the sounds you hear can overwhelm you, the association with the lyrics can emotionally decompose you up to completely losing control.

The composition was written for strings orchestra, continuo, soprano and alto, so I was very surprised when I saw the Radio Academic Choir coming on stage. The choice of tempi and, generally, the manner of Neil Thomson’s conducting up to that point had shown a return to authenticity. A choir seemed to take the evening somehow towards romanticism. I will return to this surprise, I will just mention here that the choir sang superbly.

It has been years since I cannot get over a certain version of this Stabat Mater, the one in 1972, of Ettore Gracis, where the two voices are Mirella Freni and Teresa Berganza. No matter how hard I tried to listen to other versions, more or less appreciated by the critics, I could not live the same intensity of the sensations as with the above-mentioned disc. But human voice is such a special and spectacular notion, that nothing can equal live performances. And in this context, I knew too well what to expect. The soprano is the cry of tragedy itself, tearing you apart from the beginning to the end. At the same time, the mezzo has a score that symbolizes, in the most beautiful way, maternity, with warmth and sorrow that make you emotionally succumb, before being capable of any aesthetic appreciation. Finally, the very sad passages at the beginning (Stabat mater dolorosa, Cuius animam) alternate, mainly in the central section of the work, with luminous rhythms, sending you to the memories of some canzonetta napolitana (Que maerebat, Sancta mater istud agas, Imfalmmatus est asccensis). I imagine these are the moments when poor Pergolesi was writing and thinking no one can die at 26. Because the last stanza, Quando corpus morietur, ends, before Amen, with overwhelming sadness, without equivalent in any other composition ever written, when you can really hear eternity – Tutto favella, Il sento, a me d’eternità, as Simon puts it, so poetically and tragically …

Dan Mihai Goia, Irina Săndulescu-Bălan, Maria Jinga, Neil Thomson (c) R. Zaharia

Dan Mihai Goia, Irina Săndulescu-Bălan, Maria Jinga, Neil Thomson (c) R. Zaharia

The composition was finished by Pergolesi about three days before his passing away, its creation seemed to have held him with us a little longer. The manuscript is full of mistakes, that prove the feverish writing, but the result is perfect, as if Divinity Herself had dictated the notes. At the end, after the last notes that sounded in his imagination, Pergolesi added the words “Finis Laus Deo“, impossible to comment …

If for opera it is important to know the libretto, for sacred music words are absolutely essential. Unfortunately, last night, neither of the soloists seemed to know what they were singing about. If Irina Săndulescu-Bălan (still) has a beautiful timbre, this is no excuse for very approximate diction, or for replacing fioritura with an oldish vibrato that eliminated even the most obvious nuances. I liked Maria Jinga more, the tenderness of Pergolesi’s music was there, intact, prevailing over the Esperanto she was singing in. Fortunately, the most emotional passages (the best example is Quando corpus) were sung by the choir. That was an inspired choice, because, in spite of the absence of operatic effect of the soloist voice, the religious sobriety was reinstalled, the sensation of funeral mass was even more accentuated. Chapeau! As for the Radio Chamber Orchestra and its conductor, Neil Thomson, all my congratulations, they were impeccable.

Why is it sung so rarely? Why were there just a few persons in the hall? Why this absence of advertisement? I do not know who can have the answers, but the people who were there, in the Radio Concert Hall, must have left with memories to be cherished forever.

I will end here, not before copying the words. Who knows? Maybe you will need them the next time. (You can find Romanian translations here and here – as they are not perfect, I hesitated about copying them.) I found them a long time ago, with the help of a catholic priest from the countryside, who has had a place in my heart ever since.

Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!

Quae moerebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati poenas inclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?

Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.

Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.

Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria.

Amen.

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