Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - now best known for his ‘Stabat Mater’ - had a short, colourful, tragic life.
The son of a shoemaker, he had a withered leg and a blazing talent which allowed him to establish himself as Italy’s leading comic-opera composer while still in his early twenties. As a conductor he attracted comic disasters - being hit on the head by an orange derisively thrown during a flop, seeing the floor of the auditorium cave in during a too-well-attended hit - but he died of tuberculosis at 26. Thereafter numerous composers leaped on his bandwagon, palming off their works as being by him. The ‘Grove Dictionary’ lists most of his instrumental works under three headings: ‘Doubtful’, ‘Extremely doubtful’, and ‘Spurious’.
So it was strange that, in this concert marking the 300th anniversary of his birth, Florilegium should make one of their chosen works a flute concerto which he almost certainly did not write. And even stranger that they should open with a very run-of-the-mill sinfonia by Vivaldi, and follow that with Vivaldi’s ‘Salve Regina’ - unless it was to point up the superiority of the Pergolesi ‘Salve Regina’ which they presented afterwards.
But the main attractions of this concert were soprano Emma Kirkby and counter-tenor Robin Blaze. And with both singers something seemed seriously wrong. Kirkby rendered Vivaldi’s rapidly ornamented lines in a hard and brittle tone, with wonky timing; Blaze’s voice was so thin and wan that it blended with the wallpaper; they both looked white as sheets. Learning in the interval that they had been felled by food poisoning in Vienna the day before, I prepared to pull my punches over their concluding rendition of the ‘Stabat Mater’.
Yet mirabile dictu, no indulgence was needed. Whatever it was that got into them - the majesty of the music, the vividness of their vision, or their sheer professionalism? - their voices now had colour, and their performance of this towering work was magnificent. The alternating minor and major thirds of ‘O quam tristis’ were properly plangent, the high notes of ‘Cujus animam’ stabbed furiously; the sliding chromaticism of the final section - written by the young composer on his deathbed - was supremely expressive. They even gave us a triumphal encore: never were ritual bouquets better deserved.