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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 - 1842): "Arias and Overtures from Florence to Paris"

Maria Grazia Schiavo, sopranoa
Auser Musici
Dir: Carlo Ipata

rec: Oct 2010, Pisa, Teatro Verdi
Hyperion - CDA67893 (© 2012) (58'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Armida abbandonata (1782) (Sinfonia; Qual da venti combattuta, ariaa); D'un dolce ardor la face, aria (for Antonio Salieri, La grotta di Trofonio, 1790)a; Démophon (1788) (Overture); Ifigenia in Aulide (1788) (Turbata ai dubbi accenti, ariaa); Il Giulio Sabino (1786) (Sinfonia; I mesti affetti miei, ariaa); Mesenzio, re d'Etruria (1782) (Sinfonia); Ti lascio adorato mio ben - Nel lasciarti, o mia speranza, scena e rondeaua

Luigi Cherubini is one of those composers of the decades around 1800 who has remained in the shadow of the great masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In the article on Cherubini in New Grove, Michael Fend writes: "In the 20th century the Viennese Classical school was still the paradigm for the evaluation of 19th-century composers, and Cherubini scholars have often felt compelled to praise defiantly the musical values of a composer to whom very few wished to listen. They invariably remind their readers that between 1817 and 1823 Beethoven repeatedly called Cherubini the greatest living composer and that Brahms considered Médée the epitome of dramatic music, as if the praises of the great could still sway the taste of the many." Today two works are regularly performed and recorded: his opera Médée and his Requiem. Cherubini is an important link between the 18th-century opera seria and the opera of the 19th century. He played a crucial role in French music life during the Revolution and the decades after the Restoration. In his capacity as director of the Conservatoire it developed into an institution of European reputation.

Cherubini took his first steps on the path of opera under the guidance of Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802), one of Europe's most celebrated opera composers in the second half of the 18th century. He let Cherubini compose arias for some of his own operas. It was in 1780 that his first opera was performed. It resulted in various commissions, but not all of his operas enjoyed much success. Particularly disappointing was his stay in London where he wrote two operas which were not received well. He moved to Paris where he soon became associated with the celebrated violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who was also a successful impresario with a wide network. When the Revolution broke out Viotti had to flee to London, because of his friendship with Marie-Antoinette. At that time Cherubini had already established himself as a respected composer. In 1791 his opera Lodoïska was performed, which was his first international success. Cherubini didn't have any problems surviving the years of the Revolution as he was very flexible: in 1796 he conducted music for the celebration of the beheading of Louis XVI, and in 1817 he wrote the Requiem in c minor for his memorial service.

This disc sheds light on Cherubini's operas from before Lodoïska, written between 1782 and 1790. The overtures are given much prominence which can be explained from the fact that in Cherubini's operas the orchestra played a very important role. He often included solo episodes for specific instruments. In his liner-notes Francesco Ermini Polacci writes about the lack of success of Cherubini's opera Armida abbandonata in Florence in 1782: "Its most disorientating feature was the marked orchestral profile of Cherubini's style, which did not provide the clear distinction between aria and recitative to which contemporary ears were accustomed. And indeed Cherubini's evident personality as a symphonist even in his early twenties is asserted right from the Sinfonia from Armida (...)". His overtures on this disc show a large amount of creativity and a gift of instrumental colouring, and it remains a mystery that he composed just one symphony.

It is quite unfortunate that the orchestral part of this disc is largely disappointing. The programme has been recorded in the Teatro Verdi, which - like many theatres - has a rather dry acoustic. That suits the repertoire on this disc, but it is also unforgiving. It doesn't hide any shortcomings in the orchestral playing from the audience. One of these is that the strings - although 16 in number - produce a thin and often not very pleasant sound, and that the ensemble leaves something to be desired. It also has to be noted that the oboist's tone is pulpy, and is marred by a slight tremolo. The quality of Cherubini's orchestral scores is extensively praised in the booklet, but little of these are conveyed in the actual performances of Auser Musici.

The singing isn't much better, I'm afraid. I know Maria Grazia Schiavo from recordings of baroque music, and she has a nice voice which is suitable for earlier repertoire. But here she seems overcharged. 'Qual da venti combattuta' from the above-mentioned opera Armida abbandonata is characterised as an aria di tempesta in the booklet, but that hardly comes off in Ms Schiavo's performance. She also makes not much of Ti lascio adorato mio ben - Nel lasciarti, a scena e rondeau from 1789. The recitative is rather bland and far too harmless. Moreover, her lower register is too weak and her incessant vibrato is annoying.

In a nutshell, this is an interesting project which fails to live up to the expectations.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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