Fedele & Rossini/David Robertson

Scena [UK premiere]
Stabat Mater

Majella Cullagh (soprano)
Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
Colin Lee (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Italian music past and present’ would be the only relevant title for this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, which provided a major platform for Ivan Fedele. 53 this year, he is one of numerous composers whose considerable reputation in Western Europe is barely reflected by his profile in Britain. This concert thus gave the modest-in-size audience the opportunity to hear a recent major work of his – Scena (1998), which was commissioned by the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan and premiered by Riccardo Muti.

‘Scala’ is reflected through the scale-like motion in harp and glockenspiel that reappears in various guises over the piece’s 19-minute course. The incidence of motifs that emerge and are transformed in this way, allied to its falling into three distinct sections (fast-slow-fast), gives Scena a symphonic dimension unusual in modern Italian music – yet the often-tangible nature of these transformations can also be heard as the playing-out of a dramatic scenario apposite to the commission in question.

With its partial but resourceful redistribution of instruments, and control over all aspects of timbre and texture that denotes no mean mastery of the orchestra, Scena was as enticing to hear as it was absorbing to listen to. The one proviso might be that it was redolent – outwardly at least – of so much recent music to have come out of Western Europe (think of a synthesis between Boulez and Berio with a strong hint of Dutilleux), which is not to deny that it gave considerable pleasure, nor that a likely UK concert performance of Fedele’s forthcoming opera “Antigone” would be other than welcome. Anyone interested should investigate the several discs of this composer on the Stradivarius label.

David Robertson clearly believes in the work – directing a detailed and incisive performance, prefaced by an introduction with examples that was informative without being patronising in a way that such presentations too rarely are.

Whether the coupling of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” made any real sense, beyond mere nationality, is another matter: but then, Giuseppe Sinopoli adopted a similar tack when he paired the Rossini with Bruno Maderna’s Quadrivium at a Philharmonia Orchestra concert some 14 years ago. Audience reaction on that memorable evening was a good deal more restive than on this occasion, so maybe the Barbican audience was sufficiently intrigued (or just apathetic?) to vindicate the programme. (The non-apathetic editor of this site appreciated the live, as-it-happens, broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Long may such directness continue – Ed.)

The Rossini enjoys the cache of being one of only two major works (along with the much later “Petite Messe Solennelle”) that he composed after abandoning opera at the end of the 1820s (with “William Tell”). Written initially as a joint enterprise with Giuseppe Tadolini and premiered thus in 1833, Rossini only latterly set the full text (as likely out of financial as of artistic considerations) – the definitive version being first heard in Paris during 1842.

As with Verdi’s “Requiem” (which it anticipates in various particulars), the “Stabat Mater” has always unsettled those (primarily North Europeans) who find operatic immediacy incompatible with religious fervency. Accepted thus, Rossini’s setting succeeds admirably on its own terms – combining high drama with a more suave manner that brings out the underlying plangent aspects of the text, while also hinting at what was lost to grand opera when the composer decided to call it a day.

This performance was a fine one – with Patricia Bardon warmly consoling in her ‘cavatina’, and Alastair Miles gauntly imposing in his aria before integrating effortlessly with the chorus in the recitative that follows. Majella Cullagh and Colin Lee were both a little unsteady of line at times, though the former made a telling contrast with Bardon in their duet, and Lee dispatched his aria without histrionics, while all four combined securely in the quartet marking the work’s formal and expressive centre. The BBC Symphony Chorus was on superbly incisive form in the outer numbers, and David Robertson conducted with sure dramatic continuity – not least the powerful final fugue.

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