Sarah Wegener, Marie Henriette Reinhold, Colin Balzer, Sebastian Noack SATB, Kammerchor Stuttgart, Hofkapelle Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
That there are relatively few musical settings of the 13th-century sequence devoted to the sufferings of the Virgin at the Cross is fairly easily explained. Although famous masters of the Renaissance such as Palestrina and Lassus composed a Stabat Mater, it was not officially admitted into the Roman Catholic liturgy until 1727. But perhaps more importantly, the long text, almost wholly lacking in drama and predominately sombre and penitential, makes considerable challenges to any composer who undertakes a setting. Among those who did so in the earlier part of the 18th century were both Scarlattis and, of course, Pergolesi, whose bitter-sweet Stabat Mater would become his most famous work.
Haydn’s version for solo quartet, choir and orchestra is an early work, completed in 1767 and first given on Good Friday that year at Eisenstadt. The following year it was given in Vienna at the behest of Hasse, to whom he had tentatively sent the score, and who, Haydn recorded in a letter, ‘honoured the work by inexpressible praise’. Subsequently it would become one of the most popular of the composer’s sacred compositions, performed in churches and chapels throughout Austria, south Germany and Bohemia.
Hasse’s appreciation of Haydn’s Stabat Mater is no surprise. Like the versions by Domenico Scarlatti and Pergolesi, the major influence on the work is the Neapolitan style that had dominated sacred music in Catholic countries since the early part of the century, and indeed was the most significant influence on Hasse’s own church music. What is possibly more significant is Haydn’s use of minor keys in nearly half the 13 movements, by no means common in music of the post-Baroque period, their use giving the music a deeply poignant reflective character, enhanced in two movements (‘O quam tristis’ [no.2] and ‘Virgo virginum’ [no.10) by the replacement of oboes with the soulful tones of the cor anglais. Haydn pitches the heart of the work in the movements of supplication from nos. 8 to 10, the first a duet for soprano and tenor, ‘Sancta Mater, istud agas’ (Holy mother, do this for me), followed by a profoundly felt alto solo, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ (Make me truly weep for thee) and a solo quartet and chorus, ‘Virgo virginum praeclara’ (O Virgin, peerless among virgins) in which the beautiful madrigalian writing for the four solo voices juxtaposed with the chorus makes for an exceptionally gracious invocation.
The name Frieder Bernius is a virtual guarantee of sensitive, idiomatic direction and he doesn’t disappoint here. Bernius takes the long sequence of slow to moderately paced movements – we have to wait for an allegro until the bass solo no. 11 (‘Flammis orci’ [Inflamed and burning]) – in an unhurried manner that admits to no extremes in the way Trevor Pinnock took some movements very slowly in his 1989 recording (Archiv). Is there perhaps the feeling that it is all a little too much on one level? Arguably…, and certainly his exceptionally capable soloists, chorus and orchestra do little to probe more deeply. But in this music far better that than mannered affection or the temptation to introduce greater contrast simply for the sake of it. This is a thoroughly musical and respectful performance of a deeply thoughtful and poignant work. As such it offers much solace and satisfaction.