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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Quatro Pezzi Sacri (1898) [38:48]
Ave Maria (1880)* [5:25]
Libera me - from Messa per Rossini (1869)* [12:42]
*Maria Agresta (soprano)
Coro dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma
Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 10, 12-13 November 2012; *30 May 2013, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
Texts and English translations included
WARNER CLASSICS 9845242 [56:57]

The bi-centenary of Wagner’s birth was celebrated lavishly by the 2013 BBC Proms with performances of no fewer than seven of his operas as well as some other shorter pieces. The Britten centenary was marked by the inclusion of his music in a dozen concerts. By comparison the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth received pretty scant recognition. Not one of his operas was heard complete - the best that the 2013 Proms could manage was the inclusion of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in the Last Night and a few token arias in a couple of other programmes. The one exception to this pretty shabby treatment was a Prom on 20 July when the music on this new CD was performed by these same artists: they also included a string orchestra arrangement of Verdi’s sole string quartet. I caught the Prom on TV and enjoyed it so it’s very good to have Pappano’s interpretations of the vocal items preserved on disc.
Antonio Pappano is a seasoned Verdian and his 2009 recording of the Requiem, which I have not yet (at the time this review was written in September) managed to hear, was admired by several of my colleagues, including Michael Cookson (review). That recording was issued by EMI Classics and presumably it was envisaged that this new disc would be for EMI also but following the recent acquisition of the their catalogue by Warner Classics it now appears under their imprint.
The little Ave Maria is a real rarity. Indeed, I have only ever heard it previously on Riccardo Chailly’s 2000 Decca collection of lesser-known Verdi choral music (review). I strongly suspect that disc is no longer generally available. I was impressed with Maria Agresta’s Proms performance and she makes an equally favourable impression here. The accompaniment is scored very specifically for twenty string instruments (6/6/4/4) with two of the four cellos instructed to tune the fourth string down a semitone. It’s a touching piece, modest in scale yet gently eloquent, and it’s beautifully done here. The Chailly performance is excellent too but I find Pappano’s orchestra and his soloist sound more withdrawn, investing the music with a becoming vulnerability. Incidentally, the piece sets an Italian translation of the prayer by Dante. Miss Agresta sings it in Italian but no one seems to have told the compilers of the booklet where only the Latin text and an English translation are provided.
Maria Agresta can be heard again - and to equally good advantage - in the Libera me, which was also included in Chailly’s collection. This was Verdi’s contribution to the Messa per Rossini, a composite project which Verdi suggested in 1868 as a homage to the recently deceased Rossini and which incorporated music by no fewer than thirteen Italian composers. The piece was completed but the projected performance fell victim to squabbles and the score lay unperformed until Helmuth Rilling conducted it in the late 1980s (review). Verdi had composed the concluding ‘Libera me’ and when he came to write his own full setting of the Requiem in 1873-4 he recycled the movement into the Requiem, taking the opportunity to revise the music. There are many changes - for example, the famous off-beat bass drum strokes at ‘Dies irae’ were added as part of the revision. These are all matters of detail; the overall structure remains essentially the same. It’s fascinating to compare the original and revised versions. I don’t think it’s just a question of familiarity that makes me feel that Verdi’s second thoughts all represented improvements. Pappano leads a full-blooded, dramatic reading of the music. Anyone who is familiar with the Requiem will find this first draft of the concluding movement well worth hearing.
The Four Sacred Pieces were composed in the last few years of Verdi’s life. Ave Maria, scored for unaccompanied SATB chorus,was first performed in 1895 but was possibly composed some years earlier. It’s based on a scala enigmatica, which each of the four parts sings once as a cantus firmus. Stephen Jay-Taylor puts it very well in his notes when he describes the music as “a strange, shape-shifting piece, oddly modern”. The music is highly chromatic and the harmonies often sound unstable. It must be a great challenge to sing; Pappano’s choir give a hushed, sensitive account of it. Also unaccompanied is the third piece, Laudi alla Vergine Maria (1887), which stands out from its companions in that the sung text is in Italian rather than Latin. I was intrigued to learn from Mr Jay-Taylor’s notes that the piece was originally composed not for four-part female chorus (SSAA), as we always hear it, but for four unbroken (children’s) solo voices. That is astonishing for the music is often challenging, even for adult singers. Apparently, the use of a female chorus only took root after the first performance of the piece in 1898. The present performance - by the ladies of the Santa Cecilia choir - is a good one.
The powerful, darkly dramatic Stabat Mater (1897), which is placed second in the set, was the last music that Verdi composed. It’s almost a miniature summary of his operatic style as he responds to the various vivid images of the medieval poem. The setting strikes me as quintessential Verdi, not least in its dramatic thrust. Pappano leads a darkly dramatic, very Italianate performance. Equally dramatic is his reading of the Te Deum (1896). I was delighted to find that Pappano does the first few bars of the piece as I like to hear them. This takes the form of an unaccompanied plainchant intonation with no dynamic marking, meaning that the conductor has to make a decision. Some opt to have it sung quite strongly - Toscanini was of this persuasion - while others, including Giulini, have it sung softly as though from a distance. Pappano opts for a hushed start which he sustains, as directed in the score, until the grand, blazing outburst on the word ‘Sanctus’, which here makes a thrilling impact. Thereafter Pappano and his forces produce a fervent response to Verdi’s great setting, giving a very fine account of this inspired score.

This CD offers rather short playing time but the performances are very good and the enterprising programme should be self-recommending to Verdi enthusiasts, especially since, to the best of my knowledge, the Ave Maria and the Libera me are not otherwise available at present. When you factor in also an excellent account of the Four Sacred Pieces then this disc is a notable contribution to the Verdi bi-centenary celebrations.
John Quinn  

Previous review: Michael Cookson