The sequence of Italian baroque masterpieces using the Stabat Mater text is one of the cordilleras of musical accomplishment. The poem, perhaps written by the Medieval Italian mystic, Jacopone da Todi, was set often in the Renaissance - by Josquin, Palestrina, Browne, inter alia - but its plangent emotionalism seems to have made it especially compelling to the greatest Catholic composers of the 18th Century: Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Caldara, Bononcini, and Boccherini. Each of their settings is distinctive musically, and each is a high peak in the cordillera.
Vivaldi's setting of 1712 is the earliest of his vocal compositions with a verifiable date. The text describes the sorrows of the Mother of Jesus standing at the foot of the Cross. It's worth reading through the whole poem before or while listening to a performance, any performance. Even a stern non-believer will be moved by the devotional pathos of it, and if you can read Latin, you'll find that it is a marvel of evocative verse. Vivaldi composed it almost certainly to be sung by a male alto, and not necessarily a castrato since 'falsettists' were more commonly employed as altos.
This performance by Andreas Scholl and Ensemble 415 is my current favorite of many excellent performances. It seems to me to have the best overall balance of lovely and expressive singing, elegant instrumental passagework, and tight ensemble. The performance by Michael Chance is sung superbly, but the instrumental support from Trevor Pinnock's English Consort isn't as tight. The performance by David Daniels has the opposite weakness; the instrumental contributions of Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante are sublime, probably the best on any CD, but Daniels has "holes in his game" on this recording. Philippe Jaroussky, probably my favorite male soprano these days, seems not quite suited to this particular piece, though his performance with Ensemble Matheus is certainly of interest. Kevin Mellon sings the role fairly well on a bargain recording from Aradia Ensemble.
That makes five male altos, all of them offering excellent accounts of the piece. There are also two recordings worth hearing by women altos: Sara Mingardo with Concerto Italiano, and Catherine Robbin with Les Violins du Roy. I esteem Mingardo and Alessandrini's Concerto Italian quite highly, but on this music, for my ears, the woman's more 'operatic' voice just doesn't quite serve.
There's one more male contralto performance that merits mention. The original CD is not available, but the recording is #36 of the 40 CDs in the Vivaldi Masterworks box. The performance is by Sytse Buwalda, with the Netherlands Bach Collegium. It's a strong performance by Buwalda, whose lower range suits the Stabat Mater perfectly.
I'm planning to work through the other Stabat Maters mentioned above in later reviews. Stay tuned! By the way, I'm not at all sure that SACD technology adds musical values to this performance. I suppose it would depend a good deal on your system and on your acoustical space, but in my music room I have to turn the extra speakers off to avoid "fill."