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Beethoven Symphony No.8 and Rossini Stabat Mater: Sandra Radvanovsky (soprano), Ann-Marie Owens (Mezzo-Soprano), Charles Castronovo (Tenor), Jonathan Lemalu (Bass), London Symphony Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder conductor, Barbican Hall, London, 21.3.06 (GD)

The programming of this concert was quite well planned, although a Rossini overture (say La gazza ladra) would not have gone amiss. We know that Beethoven admired the Barber of Seville, and that Rossini admired the allegretto scherzando (second movement of the Eighth symphony).

Elder used quite a large string complement for the Beethoven with six double basses, and the natural valve horn sound and animal skin hard stick timpani made their effect well. Elder emphasised the brio in the first movement which led to a finely articulated development climax with very accurate timpani, never just loud, but extremely well articulated and musical. The Allegretto scherzando was also nicely shaped and articulated, although I would have welcomed a bit more abrupt contrast in the juxtaposing recitative echo passages. Suprisingly, the Tempo di Menuetto did not start altogether as it should have and the obligato writing for celli and horn in the trio (which Stravinsky so admired) was seriously under-rehearsed, almost falling apart at one point. The wonderful Allegro vivace finale was well played but failed to live up to the promise of the first movement in terms of sustained tension and build up.

Rossini's Stabat Mater has quite a complex history being co-composed originally with Giueppe Tadolini, director of the orchestra at the Parisian Theatre Italien. Because of publishing and performing difficulties, Rossini later revised the work as his own, and there is no reason to believe that he retained any of the Tadolini contributions; it all sounds pure Rossini. The complete revised score was given its premiere in Paris at the Salle Ventadour in January 1842. A later performance in the same year, at Bologna, was conducted by no less a figure than Gaetano Donizetti! Elder's reading started impressively with ominous sounds from bass clarinets and muted cellos. The famous tenor piece 'Cujus animam', with its bel canto swaying inflection, although phrased admirably by Elder and the orchestra, was sung rather flatly by the tenor Charles Castronovo.

Most of the remainder of the performance went very well indeed. Elder has obviously studied this work both in itself and in its context with other works of the period, especially in Paris. The Stabat Mater was criticised at the time of its first performances for being too operatic for a devotional work dealing with the mournful Mother of Christ at the Cross. It is not certain whether or not the middle-aged Verdi heard Rossini's work (he certainly knew of it). It struck me that in the duet for soprano and mezzo 'Quis est homo qui non fleret' with its tense recitative introduction Verdi could well have used this as a model for 'or tutti sorgete' (Lady Macbeth's great dramatic aria in Act I of Macbeth.) Elder certainly articulated the string recitative figure in a most operatic manner. But pieces such as the reflective, subtely humorous 'Eja, Mater, fons amoris' for bass and chorus, with its echo effects between bass and orchestra, are pure inimitable Rossini. Here the bass Jonathan Lemalu was excellent, as were the LSO choir.

The complex contrapuntal choral writing in the 'Sancta mater' was complemented with impressive sounding brass counterpoint especially from the trombone section, to often under-played in modern instrument performances. The lovely cavatina for mezzo 'fac me recum' was slightly spoilt for me by Anne-Marie Owens’ tendency to sound raw in anything over forte, although this was in some ways compensated for by her subtle articulation and poetic phrasing of 'Cruc hac inebriari'.

Although Sondra Radvanovsky's phrasing in 'Inflammatus et accesus' was initially a little rigid, she did finally relax more, giving a quite moving reading of 'Christe cum sit hunc exire', and I particularly liked the snarling period trombones at the very opening of this piece. How the first Parisian audience must have relished the sheer operatic elements intoned with such drama and wit here by this operatic master!

The chorus (unaccompanied at sotto voce level) in 'quando corpus morietur' made an excellent and exciting contrast to the resplendent closing amen with Elder, choir and orchestra pulling out all the stops for a rousing coda. My only quibble here does not concern the performers but the Barbican acoustic where the full choir, particularly in the upper registers tends to distort. But overall this did not seriously mar a genuinely inspired performance of a splendid work that deserves to be performed more often.

Geoff Diggines





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