Rossini Stabat Mater

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Stabat Mater

Sondra Radvanovsky (soprano)
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano)
Charles Castronovo (tenor)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Beethoven’s compact Eighth Symphony made a truculent counterpart to Rossini’s setting of the “Stabat Mater”, and also a complementary one – there are times in the latter when a comic opera seems to have been strayed into.

Mark Elder led a tangy-sounding account of the Beethoven, virile, playful and robust, a fine head of steam released in the opening movement’s development and a perfect tempo set for the finale that aided articulation without compromising purpose and in which the gossamer exchanges between antiphonal violins brought particular pleasure. In between, came a poised and witty realisation of the metronome-like second movement and an elegant one of the Minuet, horns, cellos and clarinet excelling in the Trio.

Yet, despite such quality, Beethoven needs a little bit more heft and depth of tone than was provided here, or can be provided by ‘period’ instruments generally. And, in any case, the magnificent performance of the Rossini overshadowed what had been a very likeable entrée.

The Rossini was a revelation, the sound of the OAE, not least the fulsome brass (now with trombones) adding power without being too bright or too loud; and all the orchestra’s timbres seemed ideal for Rossini’s invention. Balance within the orchestra was exemplary, although the full choir (the London Symphony Chorus at full strength) and the four soloists as a consort did tend to dwarf the OAE at times. Other than that, this was very special – and if plans are not afoot to record this work with these performers, then they should be.

Elder kept the work moving through its ten sections and intensified the process with minimal pauses between each and, sometimes, with well-timed attaccas. The LS Chorus (ladies to the left and right, gents in the middle) was inspired, thrilling in its declamation and always finely honed (and tuned) in the a cappella passages. The four soloists each made an impression. Sondra Radvanovsky (replacing Christine Goerke) was firm of tone and pitch and always intensely expressive (she appears in the Royal Opera’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” in May), and Anne-Marie Owens (replacing Daniela Barcellona) brought a vibrant lower register to all she did. In the tenor’s cabaret number (!), Charles Castronovo’s easeful address to Rossini’s urbane setting of ‘Cujus animam’ brought smiles (“of joy bereaved … anguish … deeply grieved…”) – words and music seem very distant relations! – and he didn’t sigh-post the top top-note; he reached it well enough but a little more sense of scaling the heights would have been welcome. Jonathan Lemalu didn’t allow his resonance to drown phrases or words.

However secular Rossini’s music can seem at times, there are occasions when his theatrical instincts carry all before it – the thunderous, baleful ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ here presaged a Verdian sense of cataclysm. With many imaginative details in the orchestra brought out with relish, and the OAE’s dulcet strings seemed especially responsive, there was much here that was revelatory; the final section, displaying Rossini’s fugal mastery, built to exultation, and the scintillating chord changes on ‘Amen’ resounded with exhilaration.

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