Rossini Stabat Mater
We have down the years been rather clutching at straws where recordings of Rossini’s two great choral works are concerned. The Petite Messe solennelle has had just one memorable recording; the Stabat mater has had none. Until now, that is, with this revelatory new account directed by Antonio Pappano.
The Stabat mater is a work with a complex provenance and an unusual aesthetic. Distinguished conductors and even on occasion distinguished (if rarely well-matched) quartets of soloists have been lined up to deliver bold and serious-sounding renderings which have often stopped the piece dead in its tracks. Giulini’s live 1978, now on Testament and identical in most essentials to his 1981 London studio recording, is a representative example of this. Richard Hickox and Marcus Creed resisted the temptation to fit the work into a mid-19th-century operatic straitjacket. But if an antediluvian choral manner can productively be dispensed with, the quintessentially Rossinian vocal style cannot.
A precondition for success here is the assembling of a matched quartet of technically accomplished singers blessed with a sense of the Rossini style. Pappano has this absolutely. The pairing of Anna Netrebko and Joyce DiDonato is a marriage made in musical heaven. The range demanded of the second soprano holds no terrors for DiDonato nor that demanded of the bass for Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, whose low F is as mellifluous as the F two octaves above (he also boasts a vestigial trill, one of the first since Plançon in 1904). Lawrence Brownlee, stylish and sweet-toned, is similarly untroubled by the high D flat in his aria’s precipitate dying fall.
So expressive is the singing in the tenor and bass arias, one ceases to notice the banality of these particular Latin verses, farmed out by Rossini to the composer Tadolini for the original 1833 Madrid version of the work. Tender and expressive word-painting, ornamentation lovingly accommodated within classically delivered vocal lines, is a feature of the entire performance, underpinned by Pappano’s superbly crisp yet endlessly considerate pointing of Rossini’s trademark rhythmic invention.
Above all, there is Pappano’s unique feel for the work’s essentially quiet mood. Relish the Santa Cecilia choir’s first entry or the Santa Cecilia strings’ muted sotto voce at the start of the “Quis est homo”. And beyond that, marvel at Pappano’s intuitive understanding of how the many fortissimo markings within vocal numbers have less to do with loudness, more to do with intensification of feeling from within.
Real power is reserved by him for the implacable “Inflammatus”, its text superbly delivered by Netrebko against a background of hard-edged strings and judgement-day brass; and for the concluding “Amen” sung attacca after the “Quando corpus morietur” which is performed not by the choir but by the soloists as Rossini instructs.
The recording, made in Rome’s superb Sala Santa Cecilia, is of demonstration quality, the thrill of the chase in that concluding “Amen” as perfectly rendered as the cloistered beauty of the supplicants’ distant chant in the “Eja, mater”. This is one of the great choral recordings.