Messa per Rossini (Chailly)
It was shortly after Rossini’s death in November 1868 that Verdi proposed the writing of a Messa per Rossini, a Requiem Mass to which 13 leading Italian composers would contribute a movement apiece. It was, in essence, a memorial act. After its premiere, so Verdi stipulated, it would be placed in the archives of Bologna’s Liceo Musicale, to be released only on such anniversary occasions as posterity deemed suitable.
That first performance never happened, a victim of parish-pump politics and inter-city rivalries. Verdi’s own contribution, the ‘Libera me’, has come down to us (slightly altered) in his own Messa da Requiem. But the Messa per Rossini lay largely forgotten until its rediscovery in Bologna in 1970 by the American Verdi scholar David Rosen. Eighteen years later, it received its first performance: a joint initiative by Pierluigi Petrobelli, director of the Verdi Institute in Parma, and Helmut Rilling, director of Stuttgart’s Bachakademie.
The premiere, given in Stuttgart in September 1988, with Rilling directing his revered Gächinger Kantorei and five well-chosen soloists, was expertly recorded for Hänssler Classic by South German Radio. That remains available, in various more or less easy-to-acquire formats. And happily so, since I would be more confident commending this interesting choral curiosity to enquiring collectors in that Stuttgart performance than in the newer one from Milan.
Decca made the new recording in La Scala in November 2017, ahead of last year’s 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death: an admissible initiative under the terms of Verdi’s somewhat prescriptive brief! The principal problem is that, where Rilling and his choir are specialists in the preparation and performance of sacred choral music from Bach to Britten, via Verdi and others too numerous to mention, the operatically inclined La Scala forces are not.
And it shows, not only in something like Carlo Coccia’s a cappella setting of the ‘Lacrimosa’ but even in Verdi’s ‘Libera me’ (disappointingly led by the rising Uruguayan-born star María José Siri), where you would expect the La Scala chorus to have some familiarity with the music. I wonder, too, to what extent the Milan forces were fully engaged with the project. There are some memorable compositions here: Antonio Buzzolla’s brooding Introitus, Carlo Pedrotti’s superbly theatrical ‘Tuba mirum’, the high drama of Federico Ricci’s ‘Recordare’. But these all have more presence and atmosphere in Rilling’s performance. Where the Stuttgart musicians are alert to the music’s point and beauty, the Italians often seem merely dutiful. In all but two of the movements Chailly’s tempos are brisker than Rilling’s. This can be useful in the handful of contributions which, in one way or another, are frankly second-rate, but it is not so helpful elsewhere.
Chailly’s beautifully understated account with tenor Giorgio Berrugi of Alessandro Nini’s grossly over-inflated (not to say egotistical) ‘Ingemisco’ is preferable to James Wagner’s all-guns-blazing Rilling account. But that is an exception. Elsewhere, the Stuttgart performance is generally the finer of the two in terms of engagement, style and technique.