Scarlatti: Stabat Mater

Vox Luminis (Ricercar RIC 258)

Release Date: February 2008 3.5 stars

Scarlatti: Stabat Mater - Vox Luminis CD reviewThis important CD helps to illuminate an aspect of the musical output of one of the greatest, yet most misunderstood, composers of all time. Domenico Scarlatti is well known as a gifted composer of keyboard music but the majority of his operas, cantatas, oratorios and sacred works are completely forgotten today. This disc offers us the chance to remedy the situation with recordings of the Salve Regina, the Stabat Mater, the Miserere, the Te Deum and two keyboard sonatas.

The liner note points out that Scarlatti was born into a Neapolitan-Roman tradition 'in which vocal music in all its forms constituted the essential part of any composer's creative activity'. It was a world in which he was exposed to the music of his father Alessandro and that of Corelli and even Handel, with whom he apparently took part in a keyboard competition.

The Stabat Mater was composed during his time as maestro di capelle of the Basilica Giulia between 1713 and 1719 (when he departed for Portugal). The piece is mesmerising; written for a single group of ten voices (four sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses), all ten singers have a solo role to play and the voices are put in different combinations throughout. Only twice are the voices paired off conventionally: at the start of the 'Eia mater' and the end of the 'Amen'. But otherwise, this is a surprisingly gripping piece of music as a result of Scarlatti's unending variation of the allotment of vocal lines.

Early music soloist ensemble Vox Luminis could have been tailor made for this work: their consistent vocal excellence is ideal for the Stabat Mater's combination of individual and group singing. In particular, they seem to understand Scarlatti's treatment of the text as dramatic rather than static, and throughout they search for dark colours in their carefully-controlled singing.

The austerity of style in the Miserere is less to my taste. Although well performed here, the Gregorian chant which forms the basis for a large part of the composition is too conventional to be interesting, though the a cappella passages for the four unaccompanied voices with continuo are as beautiful as the best parts of the Stabat Mater.

However, the Salve Regina for soprano, alto and continuo is very attractive and far more expressive and individualistic. The slow tempi for all five movements allows for a gradual unfolding of the counterpoint and the series of duets for the two voices – soprano Sara Jäggi and countertenor Jan Kullmann, both outstanding – are well focussed.

Probably dating from Scarlatti's time in Portugal, the Te Deum is written for double choir in eight parts and exploits this set-up for antiphonal effects. The entire ensemble sings with a precision and variety of dynamics, while the continuo group's contribution is especially prominent thanks to the running quavers in the bass.

Completing the disc are two of the composer's 555 keyboard sonatas, played with a gently glowing sense of understatement and a feel for the unfolding of the counterpoint by Anne Nissinen.

In all, well worth investigating.

By Dominic McHugh