This recording was originally issued in 1998 on the Opus 111 label to international critical acclaim. After Opus 111 was acquired by the enterprising French Naïve group in 2000, it has since been reissued numerous times (this is the sixth incarnation here in the U.S.) and has routinely been met with similar glowing reviews. While there are many other excellent period-instrument performances of these inspired works available, none are quite as special as this one from Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini.
The instrumental ensemble, comprised of only seven members, may be the smallest ever assembled for these works. This austerity not only significantly heightens the poignant immediacy the texts and settings require, but when the ensemble is recorded as clearly as it is here, an aural intimacy is created that few other recorded performances match. Unique as well is Alessandrini’s choice of vocal soloists, soprano Gemma Bertagnolli and lyric contralto Sara Mingardo, in favor of the usual soprano/countertenor combination.
While the contralto range is likened to that of the countertenor, Mingardo’s delivery never suffers from the whiteness of tone male counterparts are often prone to. In the highest notes Bertagnolli sounds unsteady at times, but otherwise she and Mingardo complement one another extraordinarily well, and at times are simply breathtaking (for example, the fifth, eighth, and 11th movements of the Pergolesi; or the second, eighth, and the ravishing concluding 18th movement of the Scarlatti).
Alessandrini’s tempo and dynamic choices are also remarkably well considered. The slower, more solemn movements especially are beautifully, broadly paced without ever compromising momentum. Listen for instance to the opening Stabat Mater dolorosa of the Pergolesi and compare it with even the finest period-instrument performances available. Rousset (Decca) completes his procession in what must be a record 4:12; Hogwood (L’Oiseau Lyre), and more recently Fasolis (Erato), both clock in at 4:29. In comparison, at 5:10 Alessandrini achieves a much more compelling sense of grandeur (with a fraction of the usual forces, mind you!) evocative of and attesting to the sublime seriousness of the subject matter.
Instead of a usual booklet, included is a folded sheet that opens to become a poster of sorts–one side translated in French, the other in English. Three columns of paragraphed black and white text are set in various type sizes and fonts, a format that I assume is meant to appeal primarily to younger newcomers to this repertoire. Historical information is condensed in a paragraph boldly titled “Travel Back”. To familiarize the listener with Scarlatti and Pergolesi, there’s another titled “Get Your Bearings”. Heading the segment meant to help acquaint the listener with the sound of a period ensemble, we’re told to “Be Prepared”. Other sections include “Look Out”, “Have Fun”, Bend an Ear”, and “Further Listening” (featuring literary and artistic, as well as musicological advice), though the full texts of both Pergolesi’s and Scarlatti’s settings included in the original Opus 111 release are now morphed and abridged in the final segment, “Words You Cannot Be Without”. Sadly, Alessandrini’s erudite, informative original notes have vanished.
If you love these glorious settings, this outstanding performance should definitely be heard in one incarnation or another (earlier issues are actually quite common through online sources or better second-hand shops); but then (hint, hint), a fully-restored, perhaps handsomely slip-cased deluxe issue to commemorate the coming platinum anniversary would also really be something to look forward to.