Monday, March 27, 2006

Domenant vocals

Domenico Scarlatti
Stabat Mater (1714)

The period from 1714-19, which Domenico Scarlatti spent in Rome employed by the Vatican as the maestro di cappella at St. Giulia, produced a considerable body of sacred and liturgical music, much of it worthy of further attention and performance. Foremost among these is his setting of the devotional Stabat Mater text. The work, completed in 1715, employs a choir of ten parts accompanied by organ and is rendered in a style that often seems archaic, but at moments introduces newer and powerfully expressive textures and harmonies. Despite the lush vocal sonority afforded by the large vocal forces, it is with local nuances and contours and subtle combinations of parts that Scarlatti engages the listener. At first glance, Scarlatti's Stabat Mater seems like a misplaced work from the sixteenth century, with its gently arching melodic lines, delicate points of imitation, and elegant surface. Occasional harmonic clues betray the piece's later date -- a meditative plagal passage that frees itself of harmonic urgency, a cadence that points in an unforeseen direction. Despite the large ensemble, Scarlatti's polyphonic fabric is pulled taught and polished, with only a hint of harmonic depth added by the organ; in passages where the vocal forces are most reduced, the clarity of phrase and declamation solidly place the work in the eighteenth century, despite its seemingly antiquated style. One of this piece's most compelling characteristics is the fluidity with which it connects the words and music. The devotional poem, cast in ten stanzas of two tercets each, is not poured squarely into a corresponding series of musical passages, but rather stretched and molded into a larger and more organic form. The first four verses of the poem are bound together by a continuous musical passage and a recurring motive that is treated communally by the singers. The insistent rhetorical questions of the poem, "Quis est homo qui non fleret...Quis non posset contristari...?" (Who would not weep seeing the mother of Christ in such torment? Who would not feel compassion...?), are met first with an increasing musical urgency created by carefully wrought counterpoint, then a moment of pensive repose. In the subsequent passage, the music shifts from sheer declamation of words to expression of ideas and images, as shifting meters, variegated textures, and more angular writing enhance the poet's description of Christ's suffering. The adorations that follow, in which the poet affirms his devotion to Christ and desire to weep with Mary at the foot of the cross, eventually culminate in a masterfully crafted fugue on "Fac me cruce custodiri" (Grant that I may be protected by the cross) and a joyous chorus of "Amen." -Jeremy Grimshaw

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.