The second concert of the Handel and Haydn Society’s 2011–2012 season is titled “Pergolesi ‘Stabat Mater,’ ’’ but that’s just the headliner on a bill with a solid undercard: Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso Opus 3 No. 3, J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D (BWV 1054), and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Salve Regina’’ in C minor for one voice.
The guest conductor and harpsichord soloist for this mostly Italian program is a distinguished Italian, Rinaldo Alessandrini, whose Boston appearances are rare. He is known for his dramatic flair (try his recording of Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine’’). Yesterday night at Jordan Hall he delivered playful Geminiani, sly, sophisticated Bach, and passionate Pergolesi.
What’s fascinating about this program - whose four works were all composed (or, in Bach’s case, recomposed) in the two decades between 1720 and 1740 - is the dialogue between Italy and Germany. In its keyboard form (the piece started out life as the more familiar Violin Concerto in E), Bach’s concerto can evoke Vivaldi, especially in the rainfall plinking of the B-minor Adagio. The steady tread at the beginning of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,’’ on the other hand, could almost be from a Bach “Passion.’’
Geminiani’s concerto grosso is a brief (about nine minutes) affair in which the players seem to be chasing one another around the canals of Venice. Handel and Haydn’s period-instrument strings - 16 in number, first and second violins grouped - were especially affecting in the slow gondola procession of the Adagio. The Bach offered a poignant contrast between prancing harpsichord and lyric strings, and Alessandrini didn’t rush the Adagio, where time practically stops.
The “Salve Regina,’’ suggesting in its minor key a woman wailing at the foot of the Cross, is a kind of prelude to the “Stabat Mater’’ - Pergolesi composed both pieces at the end of his very short life. (He died of consumption in 1736, age 26.) Liesbeth Devos was an affecting soprano soloist, bright but not piercing at the top of her range, full at the bottom, attentive to the words throughout.
The “Stabat Mater’’ is a glorious 40 minutes of arias and duets, now anguished, now pleading, now serene. Emily Righter was the sumptuously rich mezzo-soprano, matching Devos at every point and blending beautifully with her.
Alessandrini led the orchestra with energy and intensity in a reading that was Tintoretto-like in its depths of light and dark.