Pergolesi's reputation boomed after he died aged 26. His opera La serva padrona became the subject of cultural warfare in France, while his Stabat Mater was the most frequently printed work in the 18th century. As many pieces were attributed to him as he actually wrote, and in the early 20th century Diaghilev boosted Pergolesi's stock by commissioning Stravinsky to base Pulcinella on his genuine or supposed music; Pergolesi became Stravinsky's passport to the past.
Still, it seemed strange that the programme notes for Wednesday's concert credited Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with 'one of the earliest applications to sacred music of the bitter-sweet tone of expressive sensibility', when Robert King himself is currently recording the complete anthems of Henry Purcell, who lived 50 years earlier. Moral: no one was the first to do anything.
To be sure, Pergolesi's piece is more sweet than bitter, though there are some wonderfully quirky dissonances at the words 'Fac me vere tecum flere, Crucifixo condolere' (Let me weep with thee, and share the agony of the Crucifixion), which Robert King, at the chamber organ, visibly relished as an intimate frisson with his neighbouring bass player.
The singers were the soprano Susan Gritton and the counter-tenor James Bowman. In the first half of the concert, she sang Pergolesi's Salve Regina in A minor, while he sang the more dynamically continuous, later setting of the same text, which Domenico Scarlatti wrote in the final year of his life.
Bowman has a considerable stage presence (being a large man with a winning ungainliness of manner) that suggests Gulliver in Lilliput. That, too, could be said of his voice. It flourishes as ever, though he's now the wrong side of 50, but his tone follows unruly ways of its own, trumpeting unpredictably then receding coyly when you don't want it to. The quality is contralto-like, yet the lowest notes are the weakest. The audience didn't seem to mind that a bit, and Bowman's robust manner, as the star who had dropped in to help out, met with warm applause.
Gritton was more dainty, less casual, while her pitch was true and her vocal production reliable. She sounded a bit pale in plaintive passages, but came to life in the energetic second movement of Pergolesi's Salve Regina.
The instrumentalists were five string players and a spectacular archlute, whose giraffe-like neck threatened to knock the neighbouring musician into the audience. With Robert King at the harpsichord, they also played Corelli's ninth Concerto Grosso with natural brio and lack of mannerism, avoiding that common air of condescension in exaggerated slowing of the tempo as movements ended. For all its stress on Mariology, this was a jolly evening.