Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 - 1842)
Clytemnestre [15:50]
La Mort de Mirabeau [10:11]
Circé [11:41]
Amphion [27:56]
Maïlys de Villoutreys (soprano), Ursula Eittinger (contralto), Andreas Karasiak (tenor), Nicolas Boulanger, François Eckert (reciter)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 2012, Chamber music hall of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
CPO 777776-2 [65:50]

Luigi Cherubini is a well-known name, especially because of his regularly-performed opera Médée, and probably also on account of his Requiem. He played an important role in music history, particularly in the field of opera where he is the link between the opera seria of the 18th century and the opera of the romantic era. In France he was one of the most significant personalities in music life around 1800. Under his direction the Conservatoire (1822-1842) developed into an institution of European reputation.

Cherubini was born in Florence and received his first musical education from his father. As a teenager he already composed pieces in genres which were to become the main part of his oeuvre: sacred music and music for the theatre. A crucial role in his development as a composer was played by Giuseppe Sarti, one of Italy's most prominent opera composers. In the early 1780s Cherubini wrote several operas which were performed in various cities, such as Florence, Venice and Rome. In Florence he met a wealthy English patron who negotiated posts for the King's Theatre in London. Cherubini was contracted and arrived in London in 1784. His stay lasted only two years. In 1786 his opera Il Giulio Sabino was badly received and performed only once. Cherubini left England for Paris where he had already established contacts with his fellow Italian Giovanni Battista Viotti who was responsible for the performance of Cherubini's music at the Concert Spirituel.

In France he regularly composed operas and arias to be inserted in operas by other composers. The present disc includes specimens of a lesser-known part of his oeuvre: the solo cantata. They are all on traditional subjects from antique mythology, but have little in common with the traditional chamber cantata. These are a kind of pocket-size opera, with accompanied recitatives and a singer who is supported by a full-blown orchestra.

In 1786 Cherubini joined the masonic Loge Olympique, and for this occasion composed Amphion. However, it was never performed. Christine Siegert, in her liner-notes, states that "[with] its main themes, the uncertainty of human existence and a demonstration of ways in which the conditions of this existence might be changed, the text contains certain pre-revolutionary traits, which might be a reason why the piece was never performed". I doubt this; the text seems pretty harmless and I wonder how many readers at the time might have detected any political connotations. The author of the text was Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, generally known as Mirabeau. In the 1780s he wrote several books and pamphlets in which he criticised aspects of French politics and society. It is imaginable that the very fact that he was the author of the text of Amphion was reason enough not to perform it. In this cantata the tenor who sings the role of Amphion is joined by a choir. It opens with a substantial overture.

The fate of Circé was different: it was performed at the Loge Olympique in 1789. After a short introduction the soloist sings a recitive and an aria, followed by another recitative. After an 'interlude' the piece closes with another recitative and aria. The text was written by Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1670-1741) and that explains why it is more like the French chamber cantatas as they were written in the first decades of the century. The soloist has two roles: in the recitatives she acts as a narrator, and in the arias she plays the role of Circe. The last aria carries the moral of the piece. Cherubini didn't set the whole text; the parts which he omitted are between brackets in the booklet, although the marking is a little imprecise. The scoring for a low voice, sung here by a contralto, is interesting. Christine Siegert suggests that an hautecontre would also be a possibility. I am not sure about that: the recitatives could be sung by a man, but the arias probably not, considering that a man singing the role of a woman was not common in France.

Cherubini embraced the French Revolution and composed a number of pieces expressing the ideas on which it was founded. The above-mentioned Mirabeau became president of the National Assembly in 1791. He died that same year, apparently of natural causes, but there was an immediate suspicion of murder. The playwright Jean-Baptiste Pujoulx wrote La Mort de Mirabeau for which Cherubini composed three choruses as incidental music. The first two express hope: "O heaven, our only hope, (...) save a great man for France, preserve the people's defender". The third chorus expresses the sadness about Mireabeau's decease which is announced by two narrators with the names of Cabanis and La Mark.

The programme opens with the cantata Clytemnestre which dates from 1794 and was written for "madame B., du Havre". It is about Clytemnestra first looking forward to her daughter Iphigenia marrying Achilles, but then finding out that Iphigenia is going to be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. "The cantata (...) reflects the peak of the reign of terror during the French Revolution, which is expressed in the vision of Iphigenia's decapitation in particular, but is also delineated in the depiction of the family" (booklet).

Cherubini may be a well-known composer but only a small part of his large oeuvre has been explored. One wonders why, considering the fame of his opera Médée. It is probably his composing of 'revolutionary' music which has damaged his reputation. Another factor could be that he was - depending on one's own views - either very flexible or opportunistic: in 1796 he conducted music for the celebration of the beheading of Louis XVI, and in 1817 he wrote the Requiem in c minor for his memorial service.

Michael Alexander Willens has done us a great favour by recording four works which are hardly known, if at all. The booklet carries no claims that these are first recordings. Even if they are not, this disc is of major importance. These cantatas confirm Cherubini's dramatic instincts: within a relatively short space of time he manages to create a large amount of tension. Another important element is the orchestral writing: Beethoven considered Cherubini the greatest composer of his time, and that is easy to understand listening to the orchestral support of the vocal parts and the instrumental movements in Circé and especially Amphion. The three soloists deliver impressive performances in which the tension of the situations they have to face is perfectly exposed. Stylistically their singing is also convincing, although Maïlys de Villoutreys should have reduced her vibrato a little; fortunately it is not too obtrusive. In Circé the lowest notes in the vocal part are sometimes a shade overpowered by the orchestra. Ursula Eittinger's low register is quite respectable, but probably not quite strong enough. She has more presence in the episodes where she can go into the higher ranges of her tessitura. The orchestra does a fine job; only in Clytemnestre is it a bit on the tame side.

However, these are just minor blots on an otherwise very interesting production. One could wish for more of Cherubini's oeuvre to be performed and recorded.

Johan van Veen

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