The pièce de résistance in the programme put together by Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata for the George Enescu Festival was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Almost three centuries after the composer’s death, the beauty and freshness of this 12-movement work for two high voices and strings continue to astonish. In his very last work, Pergolesi succeeded in bringing the characters of the medieval text (a 13th-century retelling of the Passion in which a poet reimagines the sufferings of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross and asks to share in her sorrow) closer to his contemporaries, replacing the solemnity and grandeur of church-like music with more pleasant melodies, worldlier rhythms, and simpler textures. Pergolesi’s Virgin is more approachable, a grieving mother that anyone can recognise and identify with.

Christina Pluhar and L'Arpeggiata
© Cătălina Filip

At the same time, this is not secular music, and it shouldn’t be treated as such, despite the operatic interferences. There were moments on Friday when one could sympathise with the comments of Italian theorist, Padre Martini in 1774, who thought that the Stabat Mater was too lightweight and too operatic in style to convey “pious, devout and contrite sentiments”. As intense as it was, Céline Scheen’s rendition of her solo numbers was somehow devoid of true tragic significance, with too many smiles and forced grimaces. On the other side, Philippe Jaroussky was more restrained. Every one of his phrases floated effortlessly. He also was a wonderful duet partner, where Scheen and Jaroussky’s voices intertwined in a very natural manner. At times you could hardly tell them apart. The same radiant chemistry between the two vocalists was evident in their encore, Nerone and Poppea “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Philippe Jaroussky and Céline Scheen
© Cătălina Filip

The accompaniment provided by L'Arpeggiata’s ten instrumentalists was irreproachable, always subtle and unobtrusive with the continuo exquisitely balanced. Paying constant attention to details, Pluhar emphasised the composer’s ability to find musical equivalents to the text’s nuances, such as the way he invokes suffering by repeatedly introducing half-step dissonances. (Unfortunately, neither original texts nor their translations were provided).

The first half of the performance was devoted to the music of an – alas – much lesser-known contemporary, Antonio Caldara, who spent the last two decades of his life as a composer at the Imperial Court in Vienna, leaving a huge musical heritage of cantatas, oratorios and operas whose depths have only recently started to be mined. After a vividly rendered orchestral introduction to the cantata La passione di Gesu Cristo Signor Nostro, the soloists took turns in front of the orchestra. Scheen sang with clarity and technical ease three arias from the oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo, composed while Caldara was still in Venice. She portrayed with dramatic flair the torments of a sinner who has largely renounced earthly temptations but is still unsure if she can find forgiveness.

Philippe Jaroussky and L'Arpeggiata
© Cătălina Filip

Jaroussky displayed his extraordinary vocal ease in a more varied repertory. In his aria “Só, lieti festeggiate”, he impersonated “Celestial Love”, one of the two allegorical characters trying to convince Maddalena. He continued with an aria from La morte di Abel. Composed for the famous castrato Farinelli, “Quel buon pastor” is not – as one would expect – a locus for fireworks displays but a showcase for the singer’s phrasing and ability to convey simple emotions. Jaroussky’s interpretation was heartbreaking as was the rendition of his calling card, “Lascia la spina” from Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. If his countertenor has begun to show signs of wear, this was barely audible in this performance. Both voices were continuously surrounded by the sensitive, velvety sound of L’Arpeggiata strings. Pluhar’s tempos were restrained, allowing the listeners to take in every tiny detail of the vocal lines.