Clifton International Festival of Music 2022 Review: Pergolesi’s ’Stabat Mater’

Alexander Chance & Daisy Walford Shine in Pergolesi Masterwork

By John Vandevert

The eighth concert in Clifton International Festival of Music’s 11-concert series, Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” was hosted at the Clifton Cathedral on a bright and temperate Friday evening.

Coupled with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” earlier in the evening, Pergolesi’s work made a lovely complement to an evening full of baroque refinement. The soloists for the evening’s concert was Daisy Walford (soprano) and Alexander Chance (countertenor), two wonderful young artists who collectively exemplified the powerful nature of early music, with accompaniment by period instrumentation replete with a basso continuo, two violins, and a viola who were left unnamed—a grievous error on the part of the festival. In any case, the evening was decorated with the brilliant music-making of some of southwest England’s most brilliant musicians, and the remarkable quasi-operatic language of Pergolesi’s last work, before his untimely death, filled the concrete cathedral with such warmth that one could have forgotten the cruel Brutalist interior.

Although venue-wise the cathedral was no place for such a sublime work to be held—if not for the architecture than for the influence of reverb which stole many of the melismatic and sublime moments away from the listener and threw them into the obtusely hexagonal vault above—I was more than pleased with the performance that Walford and Chance gave. Truly spectacular communication between not only themselves but the ensemble and audience alike, it was a special moment seeing Pergolesi so honored. Although he only lived until 26, his legacy far surpasses his age on earth, and while his name is known for a larger fiasco of aesthetic against aesthetic, this piece has stood the test of time and this performance certainly helped it to continue.

Superior Quality

Throughout the whole performance, I was stunned at the superior quality of the voices of Walford and Chance, and how aptly they musically seemed to be with each other and the ensemble. In the despondent first movement, ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa,’ the consistency of their joint lyricism worked perfectly with the instrumentalist’s cohesive musicality, creating a feeling of divine levity amidst the sorrow of the scene at hand.

I was immediately struck by Chance’s real command of his voice and the richness of his timbre, while with Walford the crystalline nature of her upper registers was a wonderful compliment to the rootedness of her partner. Even though her command of the stratosphere was exceptional, however, I had a hard time not only understanding Walford but hearing her, as she routinely fell to the back of the texture and left the audience with a feeling of, ‘What is she saying, I can’t hear?’

As the performance went on such trifles fell away, of course, as the duo’s technical skill and expressionery dynamism rendered volume and diction troubles a secondary consideration. This is not to say that the diction was perfect, although Chance did enunciate all the way through beautifully, but rather with this type of sacred floridity, the need to continuously hear the words is not a requirement to understand and internalize what the music is trying to achieve emotionally.

The next three movements, an oscillation between solo—first Walford then Chance—and duet, showed off their individual abilities for musical dramaturgy and the power of collaborative intimacy. In Walford’s solo, she perceptively used embellishments amidst caressing and supple lyricism to effectively recreate the anguish of the soul at seeing Christ’s right side pierced by the soldier’s spear; while in Chance’s solo, his highly-trained ability for articulatory exactness, selective usage of vibrato, and methodical lyricism as heard in the solo’s ornate displays, highlighted the trembling grief of Mary as she helplessly gazed up at her crucified son. In the triple-stanza fifth movement, ‘Quis est homo’ and ‘Pro peccatis suae gentis,’ I became starkly aware of the presence of an intrinsic dramaturgical vivaciousness that permeated every single performer that night. From the violin to the singer, not a single note was being spared its emotional due diligence. This movement is quintessential Pergolesi, as the first half features smooth and chaste melodicism, the instruments echoing in-turn the question, ‘Would you not weep if you saw the Mother of Christ tormented so?’ The second half can be considered virtuous rage, and as such all hands were on-deck with Walford and Chance calling forth with clarity and cleanliness the tribulation of the Virgin.

In the next two movements, Walford and Chance traded off with solos and, once again, their individual strengths were on full display. For Walford, the strength of her performance lay in her ability for dynamic expressions and multi-register control, along with her sublime upper notes, while for Chance it was his inexhaustible prosody and timbral colors, along with a Farinelli-like richness, and articulatory clarity, which all conveyed a sense of comfort with not only the music but the subject matter as well. To produce a well-executed performance is more than singing notes correctly and staying in-tempo with your accompaniment: it is the invocation of text through the musical material itself to such an extent that one lives with the other in complete, symbiotic reciprocity. The contours of Walford and Chance’s musical lines and the lucidity of their musical choices apart and together conveyed a mutual understanding of what their objective was: to tell the story of Christ’s Passion through the eyes of the Virgin Mary, and to galvanize us to live as fallible beneficiaries of his divinely selfless mortal toil.

Strong Endings

In movements eight and nine, two of the most brilliant movements of the entire night, the contrapuntal vivacity that was elicited from the entire cohort of musicians was frankly palpable. Little wonder why the great Johann Sebastian Bach himself looked towards Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” for inspiration in his wondrous cantata “Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden.” It was clear—albeit well before this point—that everyone was really listening, reacting and responding to the sentiments conveyed by the other.

In ‘Sancta mater, istud agas,’ the longest movement of the entire night with five stanzas of text instead of just one or two, Walford’s ingrained flexibility was evident in elongated intervallic motion producing beautiful consistency while Chance’s robust ability for hues and colors through timbral adjustments was an apposite compliment. The theme of the night was compatibility, a genuine Ying-Yang phenomenon. A specific applause must be given to Chance, however, as at many points I felt like I was wrapped in his voice, as if there was an intangible warmth emanating from his voice which withstood melismatic mobility and tessitura negotiations. He also used cadential endings to his advantage, a trick Walford at times tried to do but ended up getting swallowed by them instead.

In the last solo of the work, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem,’ Chance heroically called upon us all to take up the burden of the Passion, musically demonstrating this with a charismatic and noble charm that only a countertenor with adept skill at balancing technicality and dramaturgy without sacrificing the unshakable linearity of bel canto can create. Not to mention that his onsets were consistently clean, and his slight interaction with the violins while singing showed that at no point was he too far into the music nor too far out of it either.

In the final three duets of the work, the many lines of beauty set forth by Walford and Chance began coming to their natural apex and just conclusion. In ‘Inflammatus et accensus,’ a bright and effervescent display of expressive chemistry by the singers and Haydn-meets-Mozart level Classicism before its time by the instrumentalists, echoed the energized desire to protect the Virgin and in turn, save ourselves by rendering ourselves supplicants, ‘cherished by grace.’

The final movement, ‘Quando corpus morietur,’ contrasted the previous with the pair of musical orators producing a deeply resonant and deeply authentic sigh echoing the reverence for the world beyond the flesh and the deliverance of the soul to paradise. Again, Pergolesi loves to play with contrast and so do the singers, as from the delicate tenderness of the first half comes the sensational ‘Amen fugue’-like finale of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” With determined ecstaticism and fervent composure, Walford and Chance, accompanied by the agile ensemble, boasted the glories that await them in the world to come, the lightness of the ensemble with the reverberant nature of the singers defying the minor nature of the contrapuntalism.

Despite all the troubles that lie within the world right now, divine paradise still awaits the patient. So said Walford and Chance that night. A fantastic display of skill and mastery of their crafts, Clifton was treated to something very special and I shall not forget it. Pergolesi, and baroque repertoire in general for that matter, forces singers and musicians to cogently apply themselves to the music, negotiating technique with artistry, dramaturgy with period concerns. In this resounding success of a concert, the beauty of the sacred text was linked with its musical invocation, and the fragrant language of Pergolesi allowed us to truly speak. Nothing in excess or deficiency, Walford and Chance provided a stellar evening of prayers and devotion.


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