This Stabat mater is the earliest known of Vivaldi's sacred vocal works; it was first performed in 1712, a year after the publication of his "L'estro armonico" collection of violin concertos. This medieval Latin poem describing Christ's mother at the foot of the cross has been set many times over the centuries, and in fact Vivaldi only uses half of the verses, leaving out most of the "let me feel your pain" sections - thus it's a far more dramatic than reflective work. The music for the first 4 verses is essentially repeated for the next four, but with a darker hue; this is followed by 2 more verses of a more optimistic nature, and an Amen that to me sounds a little tacked-on. Marie-Nicole Lemieux seems perfect as the soloist, with a contralto voice that sounds appropriately motherly, becoming impassioned as needed but also singing the dark, low notes in a way that strikes the heart. In the liner notes conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi remarks on how she makes the music sound like a lullaby. The music throughout is appropriate - listen, for example, to the stabbing strings under "Pertransivit gladius". (As an aside, am I the only person who thinks that the standard English translation, the Victorian one, scans a little too like Poe's Raven to be taken seriously? "At the cross her station keeping/Stood the mournful mother, weeping...")
The Nisi Dominus ("Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it") is less immediately dramatic in terms of subject matter and can be considered more of a showpiece. The showman is Philippe Jaroussky, who hopefully needs no introduction. I first heard him sing, on his "Vivaldi heroes" album, at a time when I'd be listening to quite a bit of Andreas Scholl, and Jaroussky first struck me as "weird" - his voice is much creamier and more feminine, and just doesn't sound like falsetto. It's a magnificent sound. The outstanding highlight in the Nisi Dominus is the fourth section, "Cum dederit". Again to quote Spinosi, the principle is one of "motionless movement" - that sort of stillness you get on Venetian evenings as a boat glides slowly through calm waters. As played and sung here, this is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music you'll hear.
What you might call the encore piece is actually sandwiched between the other two, the Crucifixus movement from a Credo that might not be by Vivaldi. It's an opportunity for Jaroussky and Lemieux to sing together. It's like a condensed version of Pergolesi's Stabat mater, really.
I love this disc: 2 great baroque singers on top form, backed wonderfully. For many people, of course, the name of Jaroussky is enough of a recommendation but I would say that Lemieux's Stabat mater is an even better reason to buy it. She's recorded it before, with Tafelmusik for the Analekta label, but from the short clips I've heard this new version seems to be the one to go for. One thing I should point out is that Naive fails to mention the disc's timing on the cover: a mere 42 minutes. Ordinarily I would complain but small quantity is more than made up for with quality.