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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760–1842)
Symphony in D major (1815) [30:02]
Médée (Medea): Overture (1797) [7:49]
Faniska: Overture (1806) [7:39]
Lodoïska: Overture (1791) [10:32]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo/Piero Bellugi
rec. July 2005, Casino di Sanremo, Italy. DDD
NAXOS 8.557908 [56:07]


It is good to have this new Naxos release of a symphony and three opera overtures from the influential Florentine composer Luigi Cherubini. My experiences at recorded music societies have confirmed that Cherubini’s name is still relatively unknown, which is surprising owing to the high quality of a great deal of his music.

Given the relative neglect of Cherubini in recent times it is hard to imagine just how esteemed he was in his day, being regarded in the same exalted league as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Mendelssohn. In fact, Beethoven gave the well connected Cherubini the accolade of ‘the greatest dramatic composer of his time’. At the height of his popularity Cherubini was feted as a composer for the stage, composing almost forty operas such as Lodoïska (1791), Médée (Medea) (1797), Les deux journées (1800) and Les Abencérages (1813).

As a strong advocate of Cherubini I believe the most enduring section of his output is his often revelatory sacred music. Although a portion of Cherubini’s music has been released on disc over the last twenty years or so, to assemble a collection is not an easy task. To assist the reader, from my collection I have listed at the end of this review a number of high quality Cherubini recordings that can be obtained with reasonable effort.

The feature work on this Naxos release is Cherubini’s Symphony in D major. This formed part of a commission from the then recently established Philharmonic Society of London in 1815. The four movement score was championed in the 1950s by the renowned Parma-born conductor Arturo Toscanini. Noted for his tireless interest in rare repertoire Toscanini programmed the score for two seasons with the NBC Symphony. Toscanini biographer John W. Freeman described the work in 1987 as, “Mediterranean in feeling, it is lighter than the Haydn and Mozart models … more akin to Mendelssohns Italian Symphony.” Light and undemanding, it is a reasonably appealing work that rather lacks memorability but is certainly deserving of the occasional outing. Evidently it was not a success when first performed and the dissatisfied Cherubini subjected it to considerable revision; even arranging the greatly altered score into his String Quartet No. 2 in C major (1829). The revised version performed here is scored for flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets with strings and timpani.

In the opening movement, an Allegro with a brief Largo introduction, I was immediately struck by the brisk approach adopted by Florentine conductor Piero Bellugi and his Sanremo Symphony Orchestra. Not surprisingly the 1952 version from Toscanini and the NBC SO on RCA is taken at an even faster clip. On the CPO label English conductor Howard Griffiths and his Zürich players in the opening Allegro provide a sense of restraint to their playing that required a touch more vigour. 

Charming and tender playing from maestro Bellugi in the Larghetto cantabile movement that contains an element of nobility. Superb performances from the various solo Sanremo woodwinds that are heard to great effect at 1:14-1:35 and 4:11-5:25. In the recording one can detect an obtrusive thud at 4:14 (track 2). Characteristically Toscanini does not linger in the slow movement, by contrast Griffiths and his Zürich players seem over-cautious with an air of detachment. In the Scherzo-like Menuetto movement the Sanremo players provide a delightfully brisk and scampering performance. There is a swaggering enthusiasm from maestro Toscanini with playing of a Mendelssohnian character and a fine performance from the Swiss Orchestra under Griffiths who provide an interpretation of convincing mischievousness. 

In the superior final movement marked Allegro assai maestro Bellugi orchestra offer nimble playing of haste and vigour, interspersed with episodes of considerable finesse. I especially enjoyed Bellugi’s remarkably buoyant and exhilarating closing measures at 3:40-4:36. Toscanini gives an urgent and sturdy reading in his dramatic reading without over-cooking the concluding bars. The vibrant and robust Zürich Chamber players build up a fair head of steam for an invigorating climax at 4:10-5:07. 

The versions of the Symphony in D major mentioned above and also the ones most likely to be encountered are:

a) Zürich Chamber Orchestra under Howard Griffiths from 1997 recorded in Zürich, Switzerland on CPO 999 5212 (c/w overture Lodoïska and Il Giulio Sabino - Sinfonia). This CPO release has the benefit of clear and bright sound with interesting and informative booklet notes.

b) The recording of the NBC broadcast from Carnegie Hall, New York in 1952 from Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra on RCA Victor Red Seal 60278-2 RG (c/w Cherubini overtures: Ali-Baba, Anacreon and Médée and Domenico Cimarosa Overtures: Il matrimonio segreto and Il matrimonio per raggiro). The fifty year old mono sound quality, evidently digitally remastered, is disappointing in the opening movement of the Symphony but reasonably acceptable in the other tracks. The concise booklet notes leave the reader wanting more information.

c) Orchestra della Toscana under Donato Renzetti on Arts Music Red Line 47102-2 (c/w overtures: Médée, Ifigenia in Aulide and Le crescendo). This 1987 recording from Donato Renzetti is not a version that I am familiar with.

To accompany this recording of the Symphony in D major Naxos has included the opera overtures: Lodoïska (1791), Médée (Medea) (1797) and Faniska (1806). For some years, from the turn of the eighteenth century, it was fashionable to include popular Cherubini overtures in concert programmes. Although for many years Cherubini was based in Paris, successfully producing many of his operas there, I note that the three overtures selected here are all from operas that were staged in Vienna. In these attractive pieces Bellugi provides characterful and effortlessly engaging performances of great spirit.

At only fifty-six minutes the playing time on this Naxos disc is not over-generous. Cherubini’s short but significant orchestral works: the Marche funebre (1820) and the Marche réligieuse (1825) could have been included or perhaps even the substantial Dirge on the death of Joseph Haydn for three solo voices and orchestra (1805).

The Naxos engineers have provided a clear and well balanced sound quality with decent enough annotation that provides all the basic information. Much attention has been lavished on this performance of Cherubini’s Symphony in D major and it becomes my first choice version.

Michael Cookson

Recommended Cherubini Recordings: 
Sacred works:
MassDi Chimay’ (1809)
Riccardo Muti/Bavarian RSO.
Recorded live at Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany in 2003 on EMI Classics 5 57589 2.
Messa Solenne in D minor (1811)
Riccardo Muti/Bavarian RSO.
Recorded live at Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany in 2001 on EMI Classics 5 57166 2.
Messa Solenne No.2 in D minor (1811, rev. 1822)
Helmuth Rilling/Stuttgarter Kammerorchester.
Recorded at Stadthalle Leonberg, Germany in 1992 on Hänssler Classic 98.981 (c/w Haydn Paukenmesse).
Solemn Mass for the Coronation of Louis XV111 (1819)
Riccardo Muti/London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recorded at Watford Town Hall, England in 1988 on EMI CDC 7 49553 2.
Mass for the Coronation of Charles X (1825)
a) Riccardo Muti/Philharmonia.
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, England in 1984 on EMI CDC 7 49302 2 (c/w Marche réligieuse).
b) Gabriele Ferro/Cappella Coloniensis.
Recorded at Lindlar, Cologne, Germany in 1981 on Capriccio 10 614 (c/w Dirge on the death of Joseph Haydn)
Requiem in C minor (1816)
Matthew Best/Corydon Orchestra.
Recorded at England in 1995 on Hyperion CDA66805 (c/w Marche funèbre).
Requiem for male voices in D Minor (1836)
Igor Markevitch/Tshechischer Philharmonie.
Recorded at Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic in 1962 on Deutsche Grammophon 457 744-2 (c/w Mozart Coronation Mass, K.317).
Medea (Médée) (1797)
a) Leonard Bernstein/La Scala Orchestra, Milan with Maria Callas, Gino Penno, Giuseppe Modesti and Maria Luisa Nache.
Recorded live in mono at La Scala, Milan in 1953 on EMI Classics 5 67909 2.
(My first choice Medea - a thrilling Callas performance with poor but listenable sound).
b) Nicolà Rescigno/Orchestra of the Civic Opera Company of Dallas with Maria Callas, Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza.
Recorded live at State Fair Music Hall, Dallas, USA in 1958 on Gala GL 100.521. (My second choice Medea - for aficionados only, a great Callas performance but disappointing sound).
c) Tullio Serafin/La Scala Orchestra, Milan with Maria Callas, Renato Scotto and Miriam Pirazzini.
Studio recorded in 1957 on EMI 5 66435-2.
(My third choice Medea - for aficionados only - a rather subdued Callas with passable sound).
Les deux journées (The Two Days, or The Water Carrier) (1800)
Christoph Spering/Das Neue Orchester with Andreas Schmidt, Mireille Delunsch and Olga Pasichnyk.
Recorded at Cologne, Germany in 2001 on Naïve/Opus 111 OP 30306.
Les Abencérages (1813)
Peter Maag/Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Milano with Margherita Rinaldi, Francisco Ortiz and Jean Dupouy.
Recorded at Milan, Italy in 1975 on Arts Archives 43066-2.
Chamber works:
Compete String Quartets 1-6
Hausmusik, London.
Recorded at Schöngeising, Germany in 2004 on CPO 999 949-2.
String Quintet in E minor (1837)
Diogenes Quartet.
Recorded at Stuttgart, Germany in 1996-98 on CPO 777 187-2 (c/w Onslow String Quintets Op. 19 and 51).


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