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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Stabat Mater (1831-41) [59:37]
Helen Field (soprano I); Della Jones (soprano II); Arthur Davies (tenor); Roderick Earle (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Jude's Church, Central Square, London, May 1989
CHANDOS CLASSIC CHAN 10781X [59:37]

I wasn't particularly impressed by the series of recordings Richard Hickox made, back when they first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. His performances struck me as bland and run-of-the-mill, devoid of striking insights, or of any particular emotional connection with the music.
 
Well, perhaps if I'd heard this Stabat Mater on its first go-round, my opinions might have been more positive. Hickox refuses to let his orchestra run on automatic pilot, but shapes the phrases for expression and character from the start. The opening, aspiring gestures are searching and sensitive. Shortly thereafter, the violins' uneasy afterbeat rhythms carry an added measure of anxiety, and the tutti outburst is menacing. The conductor makes good use of the music's wide-ranging dynamics and textures, and rhythmic address is keen, with general pauses timed to maintain tension effectively. The score's curious hybrid nature - the choral passages suggest a dramatic oratorio, while the solo arias and ensembles have an operatic extroversion - is ideally realized.
 
The solo quartet is good; I especially liked the men. Arthur Davies was a nice surprise: I'd not suspected from his singing in, say, Mendelssohn's Elijah that he could muster so convincingly Italianate a sound for the Cujus animam. The notes above the stave betray a slight strain, but the D-flat is solid. Davies, unlike some other tenors on disc, can scale back for the brief quartet passages without losing quality.
 
Roderick Earle is also impressive, combining a bass's warmth with a good baritone's ease and flexibility. He gets into the rollicking spirit of the Pro peccatis, despite one or two overly "collected" higher tones. Here and there, where Earle doesn't set up an upward leap firmly enough, it becomes more of a lunge, but that part of the range poses him no real problems.
 
The bright-voiced women certainly do well by their solos. Helen Field soars in the high tessitura of the Inflammatus, though the first of the two high Cs sounds a bit panicked. Della Jones has a brighter voice than other mezzos - Betty Allen (Forster/EMI), Beverly Wolff (Schippers/Sony) - who have recorded this music but it's a good fit. The role is marked "Soprano II" in some scores and, once past a "notey" start, she encompasses the wide-ranging Fac ut portem with assurance.
 
It's the Quis est homo duet that provokes reservations. Field's squillante tone rides on the high side of the notes. They're not actually sharp, but neither do they quite speak dead centre. This makes it tricky for Jones to tune the supporting harmony, and she becomes diffuse and uncertain. It must be said, however, that no such problems mar the quartet passages, which are exquisitely blended and balanced.
 
The chorus sings sensitively, with well-blended tone. Its enunciation is blunted, however, which can turn things murky; and the basses disagree painfully on the tuning here and there in the unaccompanied unisons of Eja, Mater, fons amoris.
 
The ambience favoured by the Chandos team remains "long" for my taste, making soft string passages seem to recede. Here, at least, it doesn't obscure any important detail in tutti, as it sometimes could. "Gioacchino" is misspelled, with just one "c," both on the back of the case and in the booklet. The latter, however, offers complete texts and translations.
 
A good choice for the conducting and some of the solo singing, though the venerable Schippers/New York account (Sony) maintains its primacy among recorded versions.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Simon Thompson