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Gioacchino ROSSINI

Le nozze di Teti, e di Peleo (1)
Il pianto d'Armonia sulla morte di Orfeo (2)
Elisabetta Scano (soprano) (1), Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano) (1), Daniela Barcellona (contralto) (1), Juan Diego Flórez (tenor) (1), Luigi Petroni (tenor) (1),Paul Austin Kelly (tenor) (2)
La Scala Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Recorded 1997 (2), 1998 (1), Milan
DECCA 466 328-2
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Rossini's earliest orchestral cantata, Harmony's Lament on the Death of Orpheus, written when he was sixteen, is coupled with a mature and sizeable piece just post-dating Il Barbiere di Siviglia. These cantatas come from a substantial series, essentially occasional works commissioned for weddings and the like, and the composer himself probably never expected them to get a second performance. What could have proved a classic piece of hack-work, with composer and interpreters alike on automatic pilot, turns out to be much more, thanks to a lot of trouble on the part of all concerned. From Rossini himself in the first place. His orchestration is unfailingly colourful and inventive, not only in the mature piece, which has, for instance, a well-worked-out flute solo in Peleo's main aria, but also in the schoolboy one. A virtuoso horn obbligato and a striking solo for the cello are moments that stand out. The invention is unflagging if not generally top-notch Rossini - that is to say it carries one along infectiously without leaving specific tunes in the mind with a notable exception. Given the ephemeral nature of the pieces Rossini made no bones about lifting bits of unsuccessful previous operas, or re-utilising the best bits in later works. All these borrowings are fully documented in Philip Gossett's excellent notes yet the surprise factor remains high when a very well-known tune indeed suddenly turns up, prompting the feeling, however, that one has heard it sung with much more style elsewhere. More of this in a moment.

Much trouble has also been taken by Chailly, who is perky and gentle as required and obtains a good response from the Milan forces. I did feel, though, that these forces might profitably have been slimmed down a little, especially in Le nozze di Teti, which was recorded in the small theatre acoustic of Milan's Piccolo Teatro. The other work was recorded in the Great Hall of the Milan Conservatoire, where the numbers fit more naturally.

Another example of the care taken is in the differentiation of the two tenors in Teti, where Luigi Petroni as Jove has a heroic, baritonal quality (but with a real tenor ring) while Flórez's lighter tones have a plausible young-man-just-about-to-be-married air. However, it is here that things begin to come unstuck, for while Petroni is an excellent singer Flórez's high notes (which include plenty of Cs and even a D) sound severely strained and severely limit one's enjoyment of his work. Paul Austin Kelly, in the other cantata, is a light tenor of much sounder schooling and gives considerable pleasure, without ever quite convincing me that nature intended him to sing up there. Compare them both with Elisabetta Scano. Here is an attractive light soprano voice whose secure and seemingly effortless emission seems totally natural. She is also a very musical singer and her contributions to the various duets and ensembles (she has no actual aria, alas) are enjoyable without reservation. I look forward to hearing more from her, with one proviso: she must learn how to handle recitative. She has two here and they have about as much expressiveness as a shopping list.

Daniela Barcellona's contributions are small and make no particular impression, which leaves us with the disc's other problem area. But no, surely it can't be… Well, I can only speak for my own ears, and the breathiness of Cecilia Bartoli's delivery in her first appearance sent my eyebrows up immediately. As the performance went on I came to feel that her eager-girl-with-flashing eyes delivery, infectious as it was when she first hit the scene, has by now turned into a very mannered act indeed. And then my dear, her vibrato! It never was the steadiest of voices but now it's practically impossible to tell when the vibrato leaves off and a trill begins. Of course there are compensations in the gutsy conviction she brings to everything, but if her decline is not to be as meteoric as her ascent to the stars she had better give her vocal machinery a complete overhaul.

Still, she doesn't actually have a lot to do and, since neither cantata is likely to be recorded again in a hurry, listeners are advised to snap up two performances whose hearts are in the right place.

Christopher Howell.

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