Rossini Stabat mater

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Rossini Stabat mater

  • Stabat mater

Rossini's Stabat mater has not been at all frequently recorded and what recordings there have been have often turned out to be strangely disappointing. Perhaps the work's fragmented origin has something to do with it—it was written in two sessions ten years apart—making it difficult for conductors to find within the piece total stylistic consistency. Whatever the reason, only three conductors have managed to lead reasonably successful recordings: Fricsay on DG in 1955 (nla) and in 1981 Muti on EMI (nla) and Giulini on DG. The Giulini is now on CD but it is a more staid performance than some of his concert accounts and the soloists are not those he originally had in mind for the project. By contrast, Kertesz on Decca has excellent soloists—Lorengar, Minton, Pavarotti and Sotin—along with Arthur Oldham's fine LSO Chorus but that performance does not work either, largely because of Kertesz's own unbelievably perfunctory direction.
But despair not, for here at last is a performance that collectors can turn to with a measure of real confidence: a performance of touching directness and simplicity, skilfully and affectingly sung, and conducted with expertise and unaffected good sense. I don't think I have heard a performance of the Stabat mater that comes together more naturally than this. Eschewing all vulgarity and pretence, it touches the affections in a way that I find profoundly at one with the spirit of the real Rossini: that is, an urbane and sensitive human being far removed from the cynical prankster of popular legend.
Much of this is due to Hickox's direction. Preludes and postludes are expressively nursed but his tempos in the main body of movements tend to be fluent and forward-moving, not out of a sense of general indifference, Kertesz's failing, but out of a desire to realize something of the music's own natural breathing burgeoning life. Only in the a cappella ''Quando corpus morietur'' does Hickox lead a relatively expansive reading (with chorus, not soloists, thank goodness) but such is the eloquence and beauty of the singing of the LSO Chorus the spaciousness is entirely justified. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the movement being better done; something that applies equally well to the a cappella ''Eja, mater'' where the chorus is joined by the bass Roderick Earle who is, again, as lyrical, stylish and ripe-toned a bass soloist as any we have yet had on record. (In his very successful account of the ''Pro peccatis'' Earle at least puts down a marker where the trill is, something no one seems to have even attempted since Plancon actually sang it in 1904.)
Often in recordings of the Stabat mater, the solo quartet is ill-matched or unevenly cast with a couple of stars and a couple of cheaper nonentities. This is not the case here. The excellence of the bass is matched by the excellence of everyone else. Arthur Davies produces a most satisfying sound warmly Italianate; the ''Cujus animam'' is sweet-toned and free and the final high D flat seems to hold no terrors for him. Helen Field is similarly unfazed by the ''Inflammatus'' which she attacks with bright confident tone. Elsewhere, her singing is a joy, bright, expressive, capable of touching the heart. The hypercritical might wonder how, say Sutherland and Horne might have matched voices and dramatic nuances in the ''Quis est homo''; but Field and Della Jones are reasonably matched and Della Jones's projection of her music, in particular in the ''Fac ut portem'', is another of the performance's strong points. Unlike Baltsa on the Muti recording, she has that low B (Baltsa produces only a kind of electronic hum) and one is bound to be impressed by the way the text is coloured, how the much repeated ''Ob amorem Filii'' can at one point suddenly take on a particular poignancy and intensity. Above all, the quartet of soloists balances beautifully. In the ''Sancta mater'', sensitively, sympathetically paced and sung, all the elements congrue, everything clear, no one compromising or up-staging anyone else.
The recording was made in St Jude's Church in north-west London, so the acoustic is more ecclesiastical than dryly secular. In some of the tuttis of the opening movement I wondered whether the chorus was losing out against the orchestra and the general acoustic reverberation. Perhaps so for a few brief moments, but in general the recording is very fine. The a cappella movements are superbly atmospheric, the soloists are well recorded, and the final chorus reveals clarity in the recording as well and real buoyancy and finesse in the singing of the LSO Chorus. It makes a fine end to one of the best—perhaps the best—recordings of the Stabat mater the gramophone has yet given us.'

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