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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760–1842)
Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (Dirge on the Death of Joseph Haydn) for three solo voices and orchestra (1805) [21:45]
Symphony in D major (1815) [29:02]
Marilyn Schmiege (soprano); Martyn Hill (tenor); Paolo Barbacini (tenor)
Cappella Coloniensis/Gabriele Ferro
rec. 10 June 1981, Kaiserempore, Fürstabtei Corvey, Höxter, Germany. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

I tend to relish all releases of Cherubini scores and this disc from the Phoenix Edition label is no exception. The disc comprises reissues of two scores performed by the period instrument ensemble Cappella Coloniensis. Both were recorded in 1981 at Corvey Abbey, the Benedictine Monastery near Höxter in Germany. I already have this performance of the Dirge on the Death of Joseph Haydn coupled with the Mass for the Coronation of Charles X (1825) on the Capriccio label 10 614.
The Cappella Coloniensis was founded in 1954 by Cologne Radio who were then known as Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk. Since their foundation the WDR Cappella Coloniensis became a leading orchestra in the field of historical performance practice. All their recordings and appearances are on period instruments.
Immensely influential in his day the Florentine composer Luigi Cherubini lived the majority of his life in France and for many years he was an establishment figure in Paris. Under the restored Bourbon Monarchy, Cherubini was created a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, a member of the Institut de France and appointed Surintendant de la musique du roi. In 1822 he was appointed Director of the Paris Conservatoire holding the post for twenty years. I have noticed that some research sources that contain biographical details of Cherubini’s life can provide contradictory dates.
Given the relative neglect of Cherubini’s music in recent times it is hard to imagine just how esteemed he was in his day, being regarded in the same 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 for his prowess as a composer for the stage, composing almost forty operas such as the successful: Lodoïska (1791), Médée (Medea) (1797), Les deux journées (1800) and Les Abencérages (1813).
As a strong advocate of Cherubini’s music I believe that the most enduring section of his output is his often revelatory sacred music. My experiences at Recorded Music Societies have confirmed that Cherubini’s music is still rarely heard; a figure virtually unknown to the mainstream listener. Although a portion of Cherubini’s music has been released on disc over the last twenty years or so, to assemble a collection can be a difficult task. To assist the reader, from my collection I have listed at the end of this review a number of high quality Cherubini recordings, of mainly sacred choral music, a few operas and some chamber music, that can all be obtained with reasonable effort. However, much of Cherubini’s output is not available on disc; a substantial amount has probably not even been recorded. I believe a Cherubini masterwork to be the Messa Solenne No.2 in D minor (1811, rev. 1822). There is, what was for me, a revelatory recording of the score with Helmuth Rilling conducting a wonderful team of soloists, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester from Germany in 1992 on Hänssler Classics. Probably one of the top ten favourite scores in my entire music collection.
The first work on this Phoenix Edition disc is the Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (Dirge on the Death of Joseph Haydn) a funeral cantata for three solo voices and orchestra. In 1805 Cherubini had completed the score in response to the incorrect news in a London magazine circulated around Europe in 1804 that Haydn, then aged in his seventies, had died. The French Masonic lodge named The True Measure of Masonic Society commissioned the score from Cherubini, a Freemason, to compose a funeral cantata in memoriam of the death of Haydn, who was also one of the Masonic brethren. For the Dirge on the Death of Haydn Cherubini set texts by Masonic author Louis Guillemain de Saint-Victor. These are workaday verses that pertain to a dying swan on the banks of the River Danube. Imagine the embarrassment as Cherubini had already circulated printed copies of the score before the news arrived that Haydn had, in fact, not died. It seems that the score was not performed until 1810.
The Chant sur la mort sung to French texts is divided into five sections commencing with a dignified orchestral introduction. There is an undercurrent of unsettling foreboding provided by the dark colouration of low strings and wind. The weight and intensity of the orchestral textures increases at 5:50-6:19 cranking up further at 6:50-7:50. In the first Coryphaeus the tenor Martyn Hill sings a lament Amans des nobles Soeurs and in the following Coryphaeus the second tenor Paolo Barbacini conveys a distinct Italianate quality to the aria A ses tendres accents. The extremely brief soprano aria Non ce feu createur sung by Marilyn Schmiege is followed by a trio L'un et l'autre est vainqueur. Marked Maestoso this uplifting trio for soprano and two tenors could have come straight from one of Cherubini’s operas. Glorious and impassioned singing at 8:17-8:33 especially from Marilyn Schmiege.
The better known of the two scores on this re-issue is Cherubini’s Symphony in D major. The Symphony formed part of a £200 commission from, the then, recently established Philharmonic Society of London in 1815. Evidently the four movement D major Symphony was not a success when first performed and the dissatisfied Cherubini subjected the work to considerable revision; even arranging the greatly altered score into his String Quartet No. 2 in C major (1829).
The Symphony in D major 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 Orchestra. 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 the Symphony is a reasonably appealing work that rather lacks memorability but is certainly deserving of being heard. The Phoenix Edition booklet notes provide only sparse information on the Symphony in D major.
I am familiar with three competing versions of the Symphony in D major namely:
a) Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo conducted by Piero Bellugi. The release was recorded in 2005 at the Casino di Sanremo in Italy on Naxos 8.557908 (c/w overtures: Médée (Medea); Faniska and Lodoïska) - see review
b) 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.
c) 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). I experienced the fifty year old mono sound quality, evidently digitally remastered, as 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.
Another version of the Symphony in D major that is available in the catalogues although not one that I am familiar with is from Donato Renzetti conducting the Orchestra della Toscana. The recording was made in 1987 on Arts Music Red Line 47102-2 (c/w overtures: Médée, Ifigenia in Aulide and Le crescendo).
The opening movement of the Symphony in D major is an Allegro with a brief Largo introduction. The Cappella Coloniensis under Gabriele Ferro provide a measured and reverential opening. From 1:52 the mood changes to one of high spirits with exhilarating playing from the Cologne players. 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.
In the second movement Larghetto cantabile Gabriele Ferro directs playing of compassion and sensitivity from the Cappella Coloniensis. I could imagine in Ferro’s interpretation a spirit of a wandering soul with a strong sense of solitude. Charming and tender playing from maestro Bellugi in the Larghetto cantabile 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 Bellugi recording I could 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 Gabriele Ferro and the Cappella Coloniensis with a brisk tempo provide a fresh, almost blustery feel to their performance. This is splendid playing although I would have preferred slightly more vivacity. The Sanremo players under Piero Bellugi provide a delightfully brisk and scampering performance. There is a swaggering enthusiasm from maestro Toscanini with playing of a Mendelssohnian character. A fine performance from the Swiss Orchestra under Griffiths who provide an interpretation of convincing mischievousness.
In the final movement marked Allegro assai maestro Gabriele Ferro and his Cologne players perform with a remarkable confidence, almost aristocratic in feel. Cherubini’s writing at times reminded me of a cross between the nobility of a late Haydn symphony and the surging energy of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Bellugi and his Italian Riviera orchestra offer nimble playing of haste and vigour, interspersed with episodes of considerable finesse. I especially enjoyed Bellugi’s remarkably buoyant and exhilarating rendition of the closing measures at 3:40-4:36. Maestro Toscanini directs urgent and sturdy playing in this dramatic reading without over-cooking the concluding bars. The vibrant and robust Zürich Chamber players under Griffiths build up a fair head of steam for an invigorating climax at 4:10-5:07.
I was impressed with this Phoenix version of the Symphony in D major. However, I consider that the finest recording is from the Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo conducted by Piero Bellugi on Naxos. Bellugi and his Sanremo Orchestra provide a characterful performance of great spirit that effortlessly engages the listener. Bellugi has given much attention to his performance and together with a good sound quality it becomes the first choice version.
At only 55 minutes the playing time on this Phoenix Edition disc is not over-generous. It is a shame that some of Cherubini’s short but significant orchestral works could not have been included, such as the Marche funèbre (1820) and the Marche réligieuse (1825). None of the soloists or the conductor are featured in the Phoenix Edition booklet notes, yet, bizarrely there is a full page feature on the photographer of the front cover. The mainly disappointing booklet also gives some information about a spurious flute part on some nonexistent tracks. The sound quality is vividly clear and well balanced.
Michael Cookson
Recommended Cherubini Recordings:
Sacred works:
MassDi Chimay’ (1809)
Riccardo Muti/Bavarian RSO and choir.
Recorded live at Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany in 2003 on EMI Classics 5 57589 2.
Messa Solenne in D minor (For Prince Esterhazy) (1811)
Riccardo Muti/Bavarian RSO and choir
Recorded live at Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany in 2001 on EMI Classics 5 57166 2.
This is a special recommendation. Probably one of my top ten favourite discs in my entire music collection:
Messa Solenne No.2 in D minor (1811, rev. 1822)
Helmuth Rilling/Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and Stuttgarter Kammerorchester.
Recorded at Stadthalle Leonberg, Germany in 1992 on Hanssler Classic 98.981 (c/w Haydn Paukenmesse).
Missa Solemnis in E major (1816)
Riccardo Muti/Bavarian RSO and choir
Recorded live at Philharmonie am Gasteig , Munich, Germany in 2006 on EMI Classics 0946 3 94316 2 5 (c/w 2 Motets).
Solemn Mass for the Coronation of Louis XV111 (1819)
Riccardo Muti/London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
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 religieuse).
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)
for mixed four-part choir and orchestra
a) Matthew Best/Corydon Orchestraand Singers.
Recorded at England in 1995 on Hyperion CDA66805 (c/w Marche funebre).
b) Riccardo Muti/Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Chorus.
Recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London in1980 on EMI Classics 5 86239 2 (c/w Verdi Messa da Requiem).
Requiem in D Minor (1836)
for male chorus and orchestra
Igor Markevitch/Tshechischer Philharmonie and Sängerchor.
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)
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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