'Outstanding performances' (American Record Guide)
'Remarkable and beautiful settings' (Gramophone)
'Boccherini's chamber-music output is so prolific—more than 120 string quintets, 100 quartets and almost 50 trios—that few today can know his entire oeuvre. But this setting of the Stabat Mater—in F minor like the famous one by Pergolesi, its evident model—is a little masterpiece: spartanly scored for two sopranos and tenor and accompaniment of four strings and continuo, this "sequence for the Feast of Seven Dolours of the BVM" shares the intimate quality of Boccherini's chamber music, with only rare opportunities for operatic display. The earlier setting by the Spaniard Emanuele D'Astorga, a near contemporary of Handel's, is more overtly flamboyant, yet, with its chorus and mezzo and bass soloists—darker in colour. The King's performances are outstanding, with superb solo contributions from Susan Gritton, Sarah Fox, Susan Bickley and Paul Agnew. Two marvellous discoveries.' (The Sunday Times)
'Heart-melting … full of grace and beauty' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Another well-deserved hit for this splendid team' (Classic CD)
'In both works, the solo voices, strings and organ continuo and the 18-voice chorus in the d'Astorga, present this well-conceived programme in a highly attractive and stylistic manner under the expert direction of Robert King, while the recorded sound is wonderfully transparent … It would be difficult to imagine more satisfactory interpretations than these.' (Gramophone Early Music)
'SACD versus CD? Better depth, separation and transparency; simply more 'there' (Hi-Fi News)
Boccherini wrote very little vocal music; however he left two settings of the Stabat mater. It was first set in 1781 for solo soprano and strings and then in 1800 for two sopranos and tenor, obviously influenced by the hugely popular Pergolesi Stabat mater of 1736. Their are many similarities in the notation and harmony—even the same key of F minor is used. The writing is of extraordinary individuality and seems to come straight from the heart. This unjustly neglected piece is surely one of the most remarkable sacred compostions of the era.
Emanuele d'Astorga was one of the most colourful figures in early eighteenth-century music and his life has often been subject of legend rather than fact (brief details of which can be discovered in Robert King's illuminating booklet notes). During his life, Astorga was best known for his well-written and tuneful chamber cantatas (of which more than 150 survive) and his opera Dafni (only Act 1 now survives). But by far his most enduring work has proved to be this setting of the Stabat mater, his only surviving sacred composition. Throughout it we hear Astorga's gift for writing warm melodies, typical of the Neopolitan style of the time and how he captures the melancholy of this most desolate of sacred texts.
This recording is of two extremely beautiful settings—the Astorga is better-known than the Boccherini, but if any recording proves that a piece should be neglected no longer, this must surely be it.
Luigi boccherini: Stabat Mater (1800 version), Op 61
Luigi Boccherini was born in Lucca, Italy, into a talented artistic family: his father played the cello and the double bass, his brother was a poet and dancer who wrote libretti for Salieri and Haydn, and his sister was a distinguished ballet dancer. He made his public debut as a cellist at the age of only thirteen, and studied composition first with his father, afterwards with the Lucca maestro di cappella Francesco Vanucci, and finally with Costanzi in Rome. When he was fourteen, the first of a series of moves to highly influential European musical capitals began: he and his father were summoned to the imperial capital, Vienna. Here they continued to impress with their concert performances in the court theatre. For the next seven years Boccherini travelled between Vienna and his home town, composing and performing. He also took periods of leave to visit Milan where he is said, in 1765, to have arranged the first public string quartet performances. In 1766 he went on a European tour, ending up in Paris, where he came under the patronage of the influential Baron Bagge: a succession of publications of Boccherini's works followed, including six string quartets, a set of trios, music for violin and piano and further chamber music.
Next stop, possibly at the suggestion of the Spanish ambassador, was Madrid, where he was much admired and eventually appointed to serve under the Infante as composer and performer. He married a Spanish wife, and during the next fifteen years composed many of his string quintets – a musical form decreed by the court establishment. He also made contacts with nobility from Prussia and Portugal, and met the English author and traveller, William Beckford. For support he relied heavily on patronage and, in his latter years, on a pension negotiated with his Spanish employer. His location for part, at least, of those latter years is the subject of some mystery: some scholars have suggested that he remained in Spain, whilst others have assumed that he worked in Germany. What is clear is that, in the late 1790s, and now certainly back in Spain, and despite the popularity of his music (especially in Paris and, to a lesser extent, in London), Boccherini fell into poverty: distressed by the deaths of his two daughters and his second wife in 1804, he died the following year.
Boccherini's compositional output is substantial and, dictated by the circumstances of his life, largely instrumental. Over one hundred and twenty string quintets survive, as do one hundred quartets and nearly fifty trios, more than two dozen symphonies and eleven cello concertos. His vocal music is sparse, comprising just one Mass setting (now lost), two oratorios, a handful of single mass movements, a few motets, one opera and three cantatas. So his setting, in 1781, for solo soprano and strings of the Stabat Mater text might seem somewhat surprising. For its genesis, and for its subsequent revision in 1800 for two sopranos and a tenor, we must look back to the unique popularity enjoyed by Pergolesi's 1736 setting of the same text, which became the most-published and most imitated single work of the century. It appeared in many adaptations: even Bach copied it for Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden. The circumstances of Pergolesi's death, dying tragically during his mid-twenties after becoming the most sought-after composer of opera of his generation, helped him and his (alleged) last work achieve legendary status.
The influence of Pergolesi on Boccherini's setting of the Stabat Mater, the sequence for the Feast of Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is abundantly clear. Like Pergolesi, Boccherini chooses the melancholy key of F minor and a bittersweet mood of tender supplication, juxtaposed with vocal writing that would more normally be associated with opera. The same sighing appoggiaturas and advanced harmony that made Pergolesi's work so forward-looking for its time are still present: even the famous Pergolesi walking bass is heard at the opening of the final section.
Throughout Boccherini's remarkable succession of solos, duets and trios there is a constant flow of invention. Here is writing of extraordinary individuality from a composer, nearing the end of his life, setting one of the most poignant of all sacred texts with an open Christian conviction that comes straight from the heart. The opening, large-scale movement mixes string writing of startling, anguished textures (also showing Boccherini's fastidious eye for expressive detail) with ravishing vocal melancholy. The gentle Cuius animam, still gloriously bittersweet, is interrupted at its conclusion by the second soprano, setting up the melodic Quae maerebat. A winding violin melody introduces the accompagnato-like Quis est homo and a tender Pro peccatis suae gentis, in which Jesus gives up his spirit with exquisite, gentle simplicity. The Eia Mater, fons amoris is particularly striking, the instrumental prelude coloured by Boccherini's favoured cello playing in its rich treble tessitura, the sopranos eloquently and operatically duetting.
The busy vocal trio Tui nati vulnerati is introduced by active string figurations, scales flying, with contrast supplied by a slow, veiled middle section. Virgo virginum praeclara is another masterpiece: the instrumental texture of solo violin, accompanied by pizzicato cello, viola countermelody and the second violin's gently rocking figurations creates a rich cushion of sound for a ravishing soprano melody. The second soprano's Fac ut portem is lyrical in its gentle rocking 6/8 rhythm, followed by the total contrast of the aggressive, triumphant trio Fac me plagis. For Quando corpus, such operatic devices are forgotten: Pergolesi's bass returns in a mood of total submission – all passion has been spent. The bells of paradise gently chime in the violins, and the work closes with Boccherini's serene picture of the world to come. This extraordinary, neglected masterpiece is surely one of the most remarkable sacred compositions of the era.
Emanuele d'Astorga: Stabat Mater
In the audience at that performance in April 1709, and much impressed by the music he had heard, was Charles III, the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne. Within months Astorga was summoned to Charles's court at Barcelona. When Charles became Emperor (or maybe just before), Astorga moved with the court to Vienna, where he had been granted a large pension. The Venetian composer Antonio Caldara was also working in Vienna at the time, and Astorga became godfather to one of his daughters. He also ran up some large debts, which may have contributed to his sudden departure from Austria in 1714. By siding with the Austrians during the War of the Spanish Succession, he forfeited the estates and title that he would have inherited from his father (his brother also having died), but his mother and sister reclaimed them and made them over to him. Marrying a fifteen-year-old girl in 1717, Emanuele lived for another four years in Sicily, bore three daughters but then deserted them, moved to Lisbon and never again returned to his family or homeland. The remainder of his life is a mystery: there are unconfirmed reports (from the often embroidering pen of the English historian John Hawkins) that Astorga 'passed a winter or two in London, from where he went to Bohemia', but little else is known. His last manuscript is dated 1731, and by 1744 the family estates in Sicily had been sold by his wife and sister, now heavily in debt.
In his day, Astorga was best known for his chamber cantatas, of which more than one hundred and fifty survive. These are well written, tuneful and were thoroughly popular. Only the first Act of the opera Dafni now survives. But by far his most enduring work has proved to be a setting of the Stabat Mater, his only surviving sacred composition. Whether it was the apparent romance of his adventurous life that attracted people, or the allure of a wild nobleman who wrote good music, a veritable cult for Astorga grew up during the nineteenth century. Epics, dramas and novellas were written and, in the absence of much fact, legends were invented, colourfully describing the gruesome death of his father on the scaffold. Johann Joseph Abert wrote an opera in 1866 in which Astorga becomes deranged, only being brought back to sanity when his wife plays a few bars of his Stabat Mater setting. The work appeared in many manuscript copies, was published several times and performed with considerable frequency.
Hans Volkmann, Astorga's great champion and biographer at the start of the twentieth century, dated the Stabat Mater, purely (and rather debatably) on stylistic grounds, around 1707. There are equally valid arguments for any date up to around 1730. Whatever, throughout we see Astorga's gift for writing warm melodies, typical of the Neapolitan style of the time. He also captures the melancholy of this most desolate of sacred texts and, especially in the choruses, demonstrates a thorough grasp of counterpoint, but never at the expense of musicality. The work sets ten of the standard six-line verses, connecting two for the third, double-duet movement, but otherwise forming independent movements. In his scoring Astorga takes a variety of combinations of chorus, solo, duet and trio. The mixture of melody with melancholy, sweetness tempered with mild chromaticism, old-fashioned polyphony contrasted with Neapolitan cantilena, a surprisingly Germanic use of motivic development in the bel canto bass solo Fac me plagis vulnerari and the final, quietly operatic chorus which gently directs the listener away from the Virgin's sorrow towards the Carmelite missal's more optimistic 'palm of victory', all show an enormously attractive musical style. Composers and their work often enjoy a bumpy progression through history, but few paths can have been as bizarre as that of Astorga: in the eighteenth century a musical nobleman, during the nineteenth century a folk hero, and in the twentieth-century – oblivion.
Robert King © 1999