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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Eliza, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St-Bernard (1794) [7:24]
Médée (1797) [7:53]
L’Hôtelerie portugaise (1798) [9:43]
Les deux Journées, ou Le Porteur d’eau (1800) [8:46]
Anacréon, ou L’Amour fugitive (1803) [8:34]
Faniska (1806) [7:16]
Les Abencérages, ou L’Étendard de Grenade (1813) [6:13]
Concert Overture (1815) [10:27]
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. May, 1991, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 54438 [67:21]

With the exception of Médée, the operas of Cherubini are largely unknown territory these days. Even the overtures feature only very occasionally in the concert hall. Since they are works of more than passing interest, it is therefore a pleasure to welcome this ArkivCD reissue of a 1991 programme by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, conducted by Neville Marriner.
Much of Cherubini’s best work for the opera house was written in Paris, under the influence of the Italian Giovanni Viotti (1753-1824), well described by Basil Deane as a “violinist, composer and musical entrepeneur”. It was at his prompting that Cherubini came to live in Paris in 1788. Less than perfect timing, of course, since it was the year before the revolution. In the context of the real dangers of the situation and under the political pressures – which prompted a concentration on certain kinds of libretti – Cherubini had no choice but to try to adapt himself to the new conventions. Operatically that initially meant works, often known as ‘rescue’ operas, in which the virtuous (and politically ‘correct’) were maltreated and imprisoned by the evil (and politically ‘incorrect’) before being eventually and triumphantly rescued. In Cherubini’s operas this ‘rescue’ was often not from literal imprisonment but by means of escape to an alternative place. This sense of tension and release plays some part in a number of these overtures.
There are many good things here. Eliza, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St-Bernard is set, somewhat improbably, amidst the snows of the Alps, and the final rescue is from an avalanche. The overture has dignity, a pleasant pastoral theme and a kind of picturesque grandeur (without any signs of the avalanche). The overture to Anacréon is a work of some delicacy and charm, music of real grace. The overture to Les Abencérages, ou L’Étendard de Grenade shows off Cherubini’s skills as an orchestrator to good effect, and entertainingly interweaves themes from the main body of the opera. L’Hôtelerie portugaise is a one-act comic opera – appealing to rather different tastes and requirements after the traumatic experience of the Terror. The music is sprightly and inventive, with echoes of ‘La Folia’ at one point. The overture to Médée is more familiar and, out by the side of the overture to L’Hôtelerie portugaise effectively illustrates something of Cherubini’s range. The dramatic qualities of the Médée overture are, to a degree, echoed in the well-made overture to Faniska (another ‘rescue’ opera).
One looks in vain for the overture to Lodoïska (1791) which did much to create the vogue for the ‘rescue’ opera, and the Concert Overture, written for the London Philharmonic Society, is a little on the ponderous side, doing relatively little with the material and ideas it contains. But, for the most part, the music on this disc is rewarding, adroitly constructed and full of attractive harmonic and melodic touches. Orchestra and conductor are on good form, though now and then a little more drive, a little more rhythmic bite wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Glyn Pursglove


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