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Hyperion Records

CDA67893 - Cherubini: Arias and Overtures from Florence to Paris
Monument to the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (detail) (1832) by Luigi Pampaloni (1791-1847)
Piazza Martiri della LibertÓ, Pisa / Photograph by Stefano Del Ry
Teatro Verdi, Pisa, Italy
Release date: February 2012
Total duration: 58 minutes 5 seconds

'Maria Grazia Schiavo displays a nimble coloratura technique, phrases elegantly and makes much of her words. She vividly captures the pathos and agitation of the scena e rondeau Ti lascio adorato and finds a tenderly softened tone for the graceful love song D'un dolce ardor' (Gramophone)

'Schiavo's coloratura generates the thrill of an athelete leaping hurdles' (The Guardian)

Arias and Overtures from Florence to Paris

Following acclaimed discs exploring some of the more fascinating byways of the Italian eighteenth century, Auser Musici and its founder-director Carlo Ipata turn to the man Beethoven regarded as the finest of his contemporaries, Luigi Cherubini. It’s not difficult to understand why Beethoven was so impressed: this is music full of character and seriousness of intent, from the strong-jawed Sinfonia for the opera Armida abandonnata, written when Cherubini was just twenty-two, to the dark drama of the Overture to Démophon (which unaccountably failed to wow the sniffy Parisian audiences). And there are vocal delights too, showcasing a virtuosity that looks forward to Rossini and sung here with effortless agility by Maria Grazia Schiavo.

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Luigi Cherubini was born in Florence, where he learnt the rudiments of music from his harpsichordist father. When he was seventeen there came a significant turning-point in his training with the arrival in Florence of the celebrated operatic composer Giuseppe Sarti (one of Sarti’s best-known works, Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode, is explicitly quoted by Mozart in the finale of Don Giovanni): the young Cherubini was able to study with this prestigious teacher thanks to the financial help of the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo. Thus Cherubini followed Sarti on the latter’s travels as a fashionable composer, cutting his teeth writing one aria after another for his mentor’s works. Finally, Sarti, overwhelmed by the demand for his compositions, gave his promising pupil the opportunity to introduce himself to the public: Il Quinto Fabio (1780) was the first opera Cherubini signed with his own name. This led to Cherubini’s first important commissions, and he had no fewer than three operas premiered in 1782: Armida abbandonata, Adriano in Siria and Mesenzio, re d’Etruria. Armida and Mesenzio were both performed in Florence, at the Regio Teatro della Pergola, one of the leading houses in Italy.

Armida abbandonata, to a libretto by Jacopo Durandi freely based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, was Cherubini’s first true Florentine opera, but it did not enjoy great success. 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, which opens with an Allegro assai that announces the bold grandeur of the piece; it is nourished by simply fashioned but skilfully scored themes, developed in broad crescendos and extremely rapid rhythmic figures that seem to foreshadow Rossini. The vocal writing, on the other hand, still betrays its links with the eighteenth-century tradition, as is shown by the aria ‘Qual da venti combattuta’ sung by Princess Zelmira (Act II). This is a typical aria di tempesta, that is to say it describes agitated mental states with textual metaphors evoking images of storm-tossed ships and a vocal style that glosses these in virtuoso fashion. Driven by impetuous violin figuration, this brief aria opens with an orchestral introduction into which glides a vocal line streaked with lightning flashes of coloratura.

Cherubini did achieve a degree of popular success with Mesenzio, re d’Etruria, a dramma eroico to a libretto by Ferdinando Casorri on a subject inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid. The Sinfonia is a short piece with a solemn, martial gait; it displays from the outset an extremely confident use of the woodwind (flute and oboes), together with a capacity for moulding the orchestral texture which, through its pronounced rhythmic contours and carefully calculated dynamic gradations, conveys all the heroic atmosphere of the opera.

In 1784, on Sarti’s advice, Cherubini moved to London, another European musical capital where success was much sought after. But he did not get the reception he had hoped for there, despite presenting two specially written works, the dramma giocoso La finta principessa and an opera seria inspired by a character from Roman history, Il Giulio Sabino. The latter piece, a setting of a libretto by Pietro Giovannini, was given at the King’s Theatre in 1786. The Sinfonia shows considerable stylistic progress on Cherubini’s part: it is a particularly elaborate and powerful instrumental piece, as is reflected in the forces it calls for (pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani, in addition to the strings). Its surprising formal structure comprises four sections linked in pairs: Adagio, Allegro, Adagio, Allegro vivace. The Adagio introduces the discourse in martial tones, which then make way for hints of a more subdued melody; soon the Allegro springs forth in fiery counterpoint, a gesture which already contains the dramatic force so typical of Cherubini, here underlined by the tension of a synco­pated rhythmic motif that delays the movement’s true conclusion. In complete contrast to this are the elegiac tones of the Adagio, conceived in the spirit of a sinfonia concertante, which shows exceptional sensitivity in the tender dialogue between violin, cello, flute and oboe. It is the violin that leads directly into the final Allegro vivace, where its solo passages alternate with the orchestra to outline a sturdy rondo. Act I of the opera features the aria ‘I mesti affetti miei’, sung by Epponina, the hero’s faithful wife: the lady asks that her steadfast conjugal love may elicit pity, and Cherubini portrays her proud bearing in vocal writing of acrobatic virtuosity, a surging line studded with frequent runs and heralded by a large-scale Allegro which once again gives the orchestra a prominent role.

Meanwhile, disappointed by his reception in London, Cherubini had started to visit Paris. But first a new challenge awaited him, this time in Turin, where he spent a brief period between London and Paris: there he composed a new opera seria, Ifigenia in Aulide, to a libretto by Ferdinando Moretti, and personally supervised its first performance at the Teatro Regio on 12 January 1788. Contemporary accounts speak of a particularly brilliant result. For what was to turn out to be his last Italian opera seria, Cherubini distanced himself to some extent from the purely virtuosic considerations imposed by the fashion for bel canto and sought greater dramatic verisimilitude. This he achieved by giving still more importance to the orchestra, as is shown by the aria ‘Turbata ai dubbi accenti’ (Act I, scene 5): it is launched by an extended instrumental Allegro, in which solo clarinets emerge from the texture. Iphigenia makes her entry with a hovering vocalise which then descends over a wide range; her part is characterized by broad vocal gestures and long passages of coloratura, but the vocal virtuosity seems aimed more at following the words closely rather than an end in itself.

Cherubini was introduced into Parisian circles by Giovanni Battista Viotti, who was among the most celebrated violinists of his time and, moreover, enjoyed the benefits accruing from the favour of Queen Marie-Antoinette and his membership of the Freemasons. Helped by his in­fluential friend, Cherubini sought to conquer the coveted Paris operatic stage, hitherto dominated by Gluck. The opportunity came his way almost unexpectedly through the dramatist Jean-François Marmontel, who had prepared the libretto for a Démophon, based on Pietro Metastasio, which he intended for setting by the German composer Johann Christian Vogel; but when the latter prevaricated, Marmontel decided to entrust the opera to Cherubini. Thus Démophon was premiered at the Opéra on 2 December 1788; however, the very small number of performances that followed demonstrates that there was little public enthusiasm for the young Cherubini’s Parisian debut.

The question of why Démophon caused such perplexity still remains to be investigated, but there can be no doubt that a movement such as the Ouverture stands revealed as an indisputable masterpiece, the potent expression of a symphonic genius who had already attained full maturity and was destined to make a profound impression on Beethoven. It possesses a truly symphonic momentum, conveyed by a powerful body of instruments—flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani, in addition to the strings, and even trombones and clarinets (though these are absent from this recording, which is based on a contemporary print). Cherubini, only twenty-eight years old at the time, makes the extraordinary gesture of assigning to the ‘fatal’ key of C minor (later to become the Beethovenian tonality par excellence, the key of the Fifth Symphony) the intense tragic import of the entire overture. Its opening bars immediately strike a sombre, anguished, almost funereal note, leading to a motif laden with noble pathos in the bassoon and the violins. From this suddenly erupts the blazingly dramatic Allegro spiritoso, charged with a sonic vehemence and rhythmic excitement so implacable as to be positively unsettling. After a contrapuntal discussion of this material, a new idea appears in the major, more delicate in profile, which leads in turn to the recurrence, unusual in itself, of the wistful cantabile motif from the introduction. But the implacable theme once more gains the upper hand; its development finally ushers in a forceful coda that asserts the luminous key of C major, hammered out by the peremptory final chords.

Viotti had also shown notable abilities as an impresario in his capacity as founder and director of the Théâtre de Monsieur (later the Théâtre Feydeau), so called after Louis XVI’s brother the Comte de Provence, its principal instigator; the financial backing for the initiative, however, came from Léonard Autié (professionally known simply as ‘Léonard’), personal coiffeur to Marie-Antoinette, who had become extremely wealthy thanks to the phantasmagorical hairstyles with which he adorned the heads of the queen and her ladies-in-waiting. The Théâtre de Monsieur had developed into a prestigious institution, producing Italian and French operas, and at the end of 1788 Viotti summoned Cherubini there to write arias and various pieces for insertion in other men’s operas. To guarantee his productions were of the finest quality, Viotti had personally made every effort to assemble the best singers available, for which purpose he travelled to Italy. Among those he selected was a mysterious Mademoiselle Balletti, also known as Rosa (or Rosita) Baletti, born Elena Riccoboni in Stuttgart in 1768. She was destined to become one of the top stars of the Théâtre de Monsieur; according to the scanty information that has survived about her, she had a sweet voice, a perfect technique and a touching expressive gift.

Cherubini wrote a number of occasional arias specifically for Baletti. One of these was Ti lascio adorato mio ben, a grand Scena e rondeau dating from 1789, which demonstrates that the composer now demanded a dramatic truth emancipated from eighteenth-century vocal virtuosity. The expressive atmosphere is pathetic and heroic, and is already evoked in masterly fashion in the broad accompanied recitative, laid out in three distinct tempos (Largo, Andante, Allegretto) which depict in varied orchestral scoring the successive moods of a pro­tagonist forced to abandon his own wife. The ensuing aria (‘Nel lasciarti, o mia speranza’) is conceived on a similarly large scale, with an accompaniment that develops an affecting melodic idea, overlaid by a broad, supple vocal line, Mozartian in its grace, though breaking into coloratura from time to time. The spacious, majestic tones of this first section of the aria are succeeded by a much more impetuous second part (‘Prendi omai gli estremi amplessi’), an Allegro that conveys the protago­nist’s wild distraction at leaving his loved one in rapid, tightly packed vocal figurations; this section has the lively gait typical of the rondo, with the instrumental texture still an active participant in the discourse.

D’un dolce ardor la face was also written for Baletti, in 1790, but in this case as a replacement number most probably for Salieri’s comic opera La grotta di Trofonio. This brief aria speaks in touching terms of the sorrows and emotions of love, pouring them out first in a gentle Cantabile, then in a brisk Allegro. The vocal writing, though still marked by virtuosity, here seems to tend towards the calm nobility of Gluck, especially as it also pays close attention to the text, while the different sections of the orchestra are handled in autonomous fashion, as is shown most notably by the flute and bassoon solos at the start. When this piece was written, the French Revolution had already broken out; in 1792, Viotti, guilty of friendship with the queen, fled to London, abandoning the Théâtre de Monsieur and taking with him many of its Italian singers, including Baletti. Meanwhile, in 1791, Cherubini had presented his comédie héroïque, Lodoïska, which this time earned him a resounding success in Paris.

Francesco Ermini Polacci ę 2012
English: Charles Johnston

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