Monday 1 December 2014

Showcasing new Stabat Mater settings

Spirit, Strength and Sorrow - The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
Stabat Mater settings by Casciolini, Scarlatti, Firstova, Korvits and Martin; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Corod
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 1 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Fascinating and brilliantly performed: the rise of reform opera

John Studzinski the founder of The Genesis Foundation, is concerned to have young contemporary composers writing music for the Roman Catholic liturgy. The new works on this disc on the Coro Label are the product of an extension to this, whereby three young composers were invited to set the Stabat Mater, the long (20 verses) Latin hymn which depicts the sorrows of the Virgin at the foot of the cross. The Stabat Mater has a long history in the Roman Catholic Church and it is currently used liturgically for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. This new disc, from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, presents the three new settings by Alissa Firsova, Tonu Korvits and Matthew Martin, alongside the plainchant version plus settings by Claudio Casciolini and Domenico Scarlatti. The three contemporary settings were all premiered at LSO St. Lukes in June 2014.

The three modern composers have all taken a different approach to the setting. in fact none of the modern composers faces up to the challenge of setting all 20 verses with each making their own selection. Alissa Firsova, who is British with Russian parents (who are composers themselves) writes music which echoes both the classic polyphony of Palestrina and the poised coolness of some Russian Orthodox music. Tonu Korvits, from Estonia, has echoes of contemporary Baltic classical music as well as influences from Estonia folk-music. Matthew Martin has rather re-worked the piece, mixing Latin with a modern English translation, and re-casting it as a complex Passiontide Triptych which to some extent pulls the focus away from the poem's Marian emotionalism.

Alissa Firsova
Alissa Firsova
The Sixteen opens with a poised account of all 20 verses of the plainchant hymn, which is beautifully sung and helps to anchor the disc somewhat. This is followed by Alissa Firsova's Stabat Mater. Firsova sets seven verses in beautiful, thoughtful and contemplative polyphony. There is a constant interweaving of lines, and some interesting vocal lines enlivened by vivid harmony. The harmonies have a nice clarity to them, and are used expressively. The piece remains poised, and is nicely at a distance to the emotionalism of the text. Firsova has crafted a thoughtful and contemplative piece which in a liturgical content would work well, avoiding the rather operatic excesses of the text.

Tonu Korvits - Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
Tonu Korvits - Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
Tonu Korvits' Stabat Mater sets 12 verses and is more directly expressive in that his setting reflects the different emotions in the piece, though he too avoids the directly operatic. His opening is expressive and considered, with Korvits articulating the text by setting it in dialogue between different groups of voices within the choir. There is a lovely rocking motion to the harmonies. There are some fine vocal effects, such as the lovely Que moerebat et dolebat verse sung by the women over humming, and a gentle tenor solo from Mark Dobell over choir oohs in Quis est homo.  As the drama progresses, Korvits' harmony gets more complex but there is always a lovely clarity and feeling of simplicity about the piece which probably reflects Korvits directness of purpose.

The group then performs the rarely done Stabat Mater by the 18th century Roman composer Claudio Casciolini. Casciolini sets the work in traditional manner with even numbered verses sung to plainsong, and odd numbered verses sung to Casciolini's setting. Casciolini provided two contrasting settings, one for five voices and one for four voices. The resulting contrasts, combined with the melodic felicity of Casciolini's writing makes for a highly attractive piece. Casciolini sets all 20 verses.

Matthew Martin
Matthew Martin
Matthew Martin's Stabat Mater: A Passiontide Triptych mixes the Latin verses with English ones, using newly written verse by Robert Willis (born 1947) who is Dean of Canterbury. Martin divides the work into three movements 1: Silence, Love, 2:Grief, Patience and 3: Passion Destiny and each verse uses two or three Latin verses by concludes with an English one; a total of 9 verses in all. But Martin weaves the English and Latin texts together so that the one threads through the other. The result is a piece which is complex structurally and would not be suitable for use in a liturgical context for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows but undoubtedly the individual movements would work well as anthems at Passiontide. Martin has written a very effective, large scale piece with a lovely multi-textured feel. Not only is there English and Latin, but there is also a semi chorus (sung by Kirsty Hopkins, Sally Dunkley, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies) to contrast and interleave with the main chorus.

The final work on the programme is the large scale Stabat Mater setting by Domenico Scarlatti. Written for 10-part choir with four soprano parts, the piece is familiar from the concert platform (it is probably too large scale for liturgical use nowadays) and I have heard it sung by just 10 singers. Here Christophers uses 10 soloists (Julie Cooper, Charlotte Mobbs, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, David Clegg, Ian Aitkenhead, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Ben Davies and Rob Macdonald) who provide contrasts of texture. The result is a finely performed account of the work which combines technical poise with a nicely involving quality.

This is a lovely disc, the performances from Christophers and The Sixteen are exemplary and by including older settings of the same text we get a fascinating selection of very different attitudes to the same text.

Plainchant - Stabat Mater [4:51]
Alissa Firsova (born 1986) - Stabat Mater [8.32]
Tornu Korvits (born 1969) - Stabat Mater [11.17]
Claudio Casciolini (1697 - 1760) - Stabat Mater [10.08]
Matthew Martin (born 1976) - Stabat Mater: A Passiontide Triptych [10.21]
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757) - Stabat Mater [23.24]
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)
CORO  COR16127 1CD [68.45]

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