Saturday, July 26, 2014


Sublime Stabat Mater, more modest complements and a rather shrill soprano


Of course we know “Stabat Mater” by heart, but we have heard it sung by women so often that we wonder at times if it is not a piece exclusively for women. So imagine the good news, Philippe Jaroussky is going to sing it with a soprano as his partner, Julia Lezhneva. This soprano is maybe a little bit too powerful at times, and maybe slightly too shrill. But apart from that I defy you not to make the difference between a male countertenor and a female soprano, though the CD does not tell us when each one sing, alone or in duet. Yet a mixed couple is perfect because the Stabat Mater itself is based on a couple, the faithful believer who is addressing the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross.

So we follow the intricate music and we start with a perfect canon over which Jaroussky flies like a breeze carrying extreme sorrow. The voice of this sorrow becomes then in the second stanza the piercing sword itself. The address to the Mother in third person, in descriptive style is effective to the utmost here with this powerful expressivity of the voice as sharp as a sword blade. We can then in the third stanza get into sadness down to the neck, or even drown in it and the fourth stanza can express the support of the faithful to the Mother suffering thus at the foot of the cross and witnessing the slow dying of her own son, her own flesh and blood.

We can then shift to the people, to the faithful, shift from one faithful believer addressing the Mother to all believers, all the faithful witnessing the same scene of the Mother suffering because of the suffering of her son fulfilling his mission: to save the people from their sins. The address to the people in the form of questions and suspended singing or music is sublime in tone. We doubt yet we do not doubt though we could doubt, we are being convinced that there is no doubt possible. Everyone has to feel empathy in front of this Mother witnessing the death of her son. And the power of the power when bringing in the mission is just what we need to let ourselves be convinced of. And we can then go back to the Mother’s suffering and that sorrowful, hesitating, trembling, staggering singing that evokes so well the strain and pain of the Mother.

And we come back after a short musical transition to the only one interested in all that scene: the “I” who was speaking at the beginning, the “I” who is speaking to the Mother, addressing her directly and personally. The demand is simple: “I” wants to mourn with the mother, share the pain. And the request becomes a demand and the Mother has to do it, to share her pain with me, a me that is double but it does not matter. The Mother has to share her pain, grant the faithful the possibility to be directly involved. This appropriation of the suffering of the Mother in front of what is nothing but a human sacrifice is not supposed to cathartically alleviate the horror, but just to in a way partly dispossess the Mother of it by making me part of it. And this finds its crowing stanza in shifting from the Holy Mother to The Virgin:

“Virgin most exalted among virgins,
Be not now ill-disposed towards me;
Grant that I may grieve with you.”

This shift is perfectly conveyed by the singing and the music, with a short interlude, or introduction to the next phase, a musical strength and power that imply something has changed, is changing. The “I” speaking wants to be the direct bearer of the passion, of the human sacrifice, divinely amplified and celebrated. And that suffering “I” wants to carry is no longer suffering for “me” but “inebriation” with the cross and the love of Jesus. He is thus entering the human sacrifice as a contemplation, an inner spectacle that carries him away in perfect inebriated empathy. The Mother has been pushed aside as the suffering Mother by this empathy laced with inebriation.

We then can come to another change in the music this time nearly happy and frivolously gay. The “I” after all had and still has some interest in all his empathy; it was not gratuitous. He suffered with the Mother and he tried to charm the Virgin to get all the help he could get from those aforementioned Mother and Virgin on the last day of this life, on the Second Coming, on Judgment Day. We can then conclude with some softer and maybe sadder, but in the satisfied way of enjoyment, evoking of “my” death that is not going to be a death at all because the Mother and Virgin will have supported me into paradise because of all the empathy I have demonstrated towards them.

This poem has always been for me the most hypocritical blackmailing I can imagine/ In front of this human sacrifice and of the justified suffering of the Mother: I accept to carry part of the pain, to appropriate that pain into myself but only to get the support of the Mother who has to give me something back in repayment for my empathy, and that will be my salvation. So then, I can say “Amen” as many times as I want. I win.

This rendition, Jaroussky particularly, is a miracle of expressivity and flexibility and the text is so well supported by the tone that the hypocrisy of the Amen’s counting their little benefits, well little really, is exposed to anyone who can hear the difference between a breeze and a blizzard.

Then we can move to other pieces that are just plain joy and communion.

The “Laudate Pueri Dominum” is nothing but such a liturgical joyful praise for God and evocation of the power and grandness if not grandiose-ness of the Lord, of God. We are obviously in liturgical pieces that are part of vespers and that are just supposed to be a happy meeting around the evocation of the Lord’s resurrection after his crucifixion. The music may vary from one stanza to the next it remains in a way stilted and pompous, even when it tries to be soft and discreet. There are interesting variations in rhythm and tempo but the tone is always the same: let’s rejoice and share the joy of this rejoicing since we are saved and we can count on this absolute salvation that was won for us on the cross. Many people have said nasty things about this human sacrifice, what’s more symbolically turned into a repast on the flesh and blood of the sacrificed human victim, but such liturgical music always let me pensive at least: how can we rejoice in it? How can we accept such a deal: your death on the cross and my salvation without any suffering, except some empathy for the poor Mother?

And this self-satisfied vanity is so beautifully expressed in the “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto” of this “Laudate Pueri Dominum.” The Glory we are speaking of is not that of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit but the glory I get by kneeling and bending in front of this trinity, of this re-established trinity of older times after the dual episode of the Old Testament in which God is nothing but himself and his spirit in order to purge the paganism of all religions around Israel and the Jews at the time. Then eternity can be announced and sung. Amen.

The “Confitebor Tibi Domine” is quite the continuation of this tone. All the work is on the side of the Lord, of God. He does everything and he gives us all we need to be happy and to be guaranteed eternity in paradise. We just have some little commandments to abide by. Nothing at all after all. It is God himself who is compassionate for us and drowns us in his compassion provided we accept to drink his wine, or his blood if you prefer, and eat his bread, his flesh if you like it better, and this wine and this bread are nothing but the few ten commandments and some cardinal virtues to keep and some deadly sins to reject. Nothing at all, after all. Don’t play with your sinning body or mind and you won’t get deaf to the Lord’s call when it is time to go on to the other side of this life. The soprano is quite good in the “Fidelio” though I would have preferred the countertenor, but it is true sung by a woman this evocation of the commandments is ironical: the carrier of the original sin is singing the commandments though she missed them as soon as she turned her eyes towards nothing but an apple and an apple tree and she met the worm in the fruit, the snake on the tree.

Luckily the countertenor takes over for the evocation of the Lord’s redemption, the redemption he gave us, he gave the woman of the previous stanza and her contradiction. Luckily God is magnanimous, generous, glorious. And the slightly sad tone of the “Redemptionem” gets joyous again in the “Sancrum” because we can only know joy, happiness and satisfaction if not even enjoyment – and some may go slightly farther along that line – in front of this redemption and the glory of God, his Son and his Holy Spirit. “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Sipritui Sancto” then, again and again. And we can conclude with the eternity of this happiness. Gosh it is easy to be happy for Catholics. And the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera Lugano is perfect for that last moment of communion in eternal joy. And Amen then and therefore. I believe therefore I am.


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