Hyperion Records

first performed at the Paris Opéra on 2 December 1788

'Cherubini: Arias and Overtures from Florence to Paris' (CDA67893)
Cherubini: Arias and Overtures from Florence to Paris
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Ouverture: Allegro spiritoso


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. 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.

from notes by Francesco Ermini Polacci © 2012
English: Charles Johnston

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