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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Pietą: Sacred Works for Alto
Clarę stellę, scintillate, RV625 (1715) [10:44]
Stabat Mater, RV621 (1712) [19:45]
Filię męstę Jerusalem, RV638 (1715) [9:26]
Concerto for strings and continuo in c minor, RV120 (1727-1730) [5:19]
Gloria, RV589: Domine Deus [3:49]
Longe mala, umbrae, terrores, RV629 (before 1739) [15:23]
Salve Regina, RV618 (before 1742) [13:52]
Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor and direction)
Ensemble Arteserse
rec. 20-28 March 2014, Paroisse Notre-Dame de Liban, Paris. DDD.
Booklet includes texts and translations.
Bonus DVD included: highlights filmed during the recording and interviews
ERATO 2564 625810 [78:31]

Benchmark versions:

• (Stabat Mater, Clarę stellę) NAIVE OP30367 Sarah Mingardo (alto); Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini – CD, or download from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless)

• (Stabat Mater, with Bach and Pergolesi) BIS-SACD-1546 Emma Kirkby (soprano); Theatre of Early Music/Daniel Taylor: ‘should on no account be overlooked’ – review – SACD, or download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com (mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless)

• (Stabat Mater) HYPERION CDA66799 Robin Blaze; The King’s Consort/King (CD now Archive Service only or part of CDS44171/81, 11 budget-price CDs – review – or download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk, mp3 or lossless)

Let me say at the outset that I would be very happy to take any one of these recordings of the principal work, Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, including the new one from Philippe Jaroussky, to my putative Desert Island.  All have something distinctive to offer: Jaroussky’s very light counter-tenor voice; Sarah Mingardo and Rinaldo Alessandrini offering an all-Italian and highly emotional take on the music; Emma Kirkby’s crystal-clear tones on the only recording available on SACD or in 24-bit download format and Robin Blaze on Volume 5 of Robert King’s very fine complete series of Vivaldi’s sacred music, also available as part of an attractively-priced 11-CD set.  

There is one other, very special recording that I should mention: Decca’s limited-edition 50-CD set of Oiseau-Lyre recordings of The Baroque Era (4786753), which I reviewed in Download News 2014/10, offers a wonderfully inexpensive starting point for any collection of the music of this period. These make excellent alternative recordings for established collectors who don’t own many of the classic versions, mostly directed by Christopher Hogwood.  Even when the limited edition expires it seems likely that the two halves of the set will remain available as downloads at an attractive price.  

James Bowman sings the Vivaldi Stabat Mater on Volume 2 of the Decca set and that’s another candidate for the Desert Island.  If you don’t wish to run to the complete set or even the half set as a download, Decca have also reissued this performance on budget-price Virtuoso 4783615. It comes with the Gloria, RV589, sung by Carolyn Watkinson, and Nulla in mundo pax sincera and Amor hai vinto, sung by Emma Kirkby.  

I could throw one other very fine recording into the mix: Andreas Scholl and Ensemble 415 conducted by Chiara Banchini on Harmonia Mundi (HMC901571 – DL News 2013/6) at the risk of confusing you with overmuch choice. I’ll merely say that if you bought that version or the inexpensive Alto which I also included in that review (Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore) you need have no regrets.  

There were some very talented young musicians at the Pietą, the girls’ orphanage for which Vivaldi composed so much of his music and which gives this album its title – Philippe Jaroussky is shown on the cover behind the grille from which the young musicians performed and sang.  I doubt, however, if any of them were quite up to the standard demonstrated on any of these recordings.  

If you have one or more of Jaroussky’s earlier recordings – perhaps the CD or DVD/blu-ray entitled The Voice/La Voix des Rźves which I reviewed here and here: the contents are not identical despite the similarity of title – you will know what to expect.  If you haven’t heard his distinctive tones before, closer to a soprano than an alto, you may wish to sample the new album first from Qobuz.  Once accustomed to his distinctive style most listeners become Jaroussky fans.  I certainly have.  

Jaroussky takes Stabat Mater at a fairly sedate pace, almost a minute longer overall than Bowman and Hogwood, though the appearance is the other way round. The former keeps the music moving and the latter pair seem to dwell more on the emotion.  Though I enjoyed Jaroussky directing the Ensemble Artaserse – the first time that he has directed himself, I think – the Decca performance benefits from having a separate soloist and conductor: try the accompaniment in part 7, Eia Mater, for example.  

Blaze and King also take the work fairly briskly overall, though again there are passages where they emphasise the emotion of the words rather than keep the music moving forward.  I tend to prefer even such affective music to be kept in motion but if there is any work that benefits from lingering a little it must be the Stabat Mater.  

Mingardo and Alessandrini linger the most – surprisingly so, given the conductor’s reputation as something of a whiz kid – with Kirkby and Taylor a little slower than Jaroussky and a little faster than Bowman and Hogwood.  I’m such a confirmed Kirkby fan that I’m very happy with a degree of lingering beside the way in the opening section: 3:23 on BIS against 3:06 on the new Erato – in the other sections timings are roughly similar.  

If you really want to emote in that opening section, Mingardo and Alessandrini take 3:50.  Despite the high regard in which this recording is generally held – the only version recommended by the current pared-down Penguin Guide. Lindsay Kemp in Gramophone described the original release as ‘quite special’. I think that’s a little too slow.  Mingardo’s voice – actually deeper in timbre than any of the counter-tenors – lends itself well to such an interpretation, however, if that’s what you crave.

In Clarę stellę the tempi on the Mingardo/Alessandrini recording are much closer to those adopted by Jaroussky and both recordings are in accord with the joyous spirit of the music.  

All five versions sound very well in their various guises – all but the new Erato heard as downloads.  If there’s a small advantage it lies with the BIS 24-bit version, equivalent to the SACD.  Even at $15.32 the download comes at an attractive price, rather less than the £16 or so that you might expect to pay for the SACD, with mp3 and 16-bit more desirable still at $10.94.

It’s horses for courses, then, with much to enjoy in all these recordings.  If you are looking for a very fine all-Vivaldi vocal programme of the kind of sacred music that the girls at the Venice Pietą might have sung, either the new recording or the Hyperion will do very nicely.  On Hyperion the other works are less well known than the Erato couplings.  Be warned, however, that if you go for Volume 5 of that series you may well wish that you had chosen the whole set at its attractive price. 

The other major work on the new recording is the dramatic Longe mala, umbrę, terrores.  In the apparent absence of the wonderful recording made early in her career by Emma Kirkby my benchmark again comes from the multi-disc set made by the King’s Consort. This is also available separately on CDA66779, where you will find Clarę stellę and Filię męstę Jerusalem.  Robert Hugill – review – thought Denley a little too careful in her passagework in Longe mala but liked James Bowman in the other two works. Overall I’d hate to choose between such fine recordings as the Hyperion and the new Erato. 

If this is your first encounter with Jaroussky and you like what you hear, as I anticipate that you will, you may well find yourself going for one or more of his earlier examples.  As well as the two collections that I have listed above, he has appeared in a number of Naļve recordings of Vivaldi’s music alongside the likes of Sandrine Piau: La Fida Ninfa, Ercole sul Termodonte, Operatic and Sacred Arias, La Veritą in Cimento, Griselda and Orlando Furioso and on Dynamic in Catone in Utica

I suppose the bonus DVD is the USP of the new Erato.  I can usually happily take or leave such offerings. Its inclusion does make the new CD an awkward size – too thick to slot into a CD storage tray.  The DVD adds very little to the attractions of the CD – just excerpts from the recording sessions intercut with a short guided tour of Venice and Jaroussky’s thoughts on Vivaldi. 

The only possible slight reservation about the BIS is that, although I could happily listen to Emma Kirkby sing the telephone directory, the programme doesn’t quite hang together.  With Pergolesi’s Salve Regina as one of the other works it would have been logical to conclude with that composer’s Stabat Mater – two wonderful settings of that poem on one album – rather than Bach’s adaptation of it to a German Lutheran text. 

Similarly, if there’s one fault to be found with the new recordings it’s a sin of omission: so good is the performance of the small section of the Gloria that I hope we shall hear Jaroussky perform the whole of this work ere long; this even in the face of very strong competition for this most popular of Vivaldi’s sacred settings.  Given that it seems likely that Vivaldi wrote the Stabat Mater for a male alto, there’s otherwise every reason to go for this new entrant. 

You might think that listening to five recordings of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater on the trot would be wearing, but such is the quality of all of them, not least the new Erato, that nothing could be further from the truth.  Philippe Jaroussky writes in the booklet of how much Vivaldi has been a lucky composer for him.  I believe the combination will prove to be lucky and fruitful again.  It certainly deserves to be.  If I have concentrated on Stabat Mater, I should emphasise that my enjoyment also extended to the other works. 

I had completed this review and was proof-reading when Michael Cookson’s review appeared.  His one-word summary, ‘admirable’, reflects my views, too. 

Brian Wilson  

Previous review: Michael Cookson